When it comes to owning and writing about truck campers and adventure travel, James Langan has few equals. Over the past few decades, James has owned several camping rigs. His first was a 1963 Bell Camper on a first-generation 1993 Dodge/Cummins, which was quickly followed by the 30-foot, 1978 Avion travel trailer that he’s owned since 1994. He’s also owned two Eezi-Awn rooftop tents (RTT), an Adventure Trailers Chaser, and a Kimberly Kamper that he imported from Australia in 2008. Over the last eight years James has owned four pop-up truck campers—two Four Wheel Campers (FWC) and two Hallmarks. A freelance journalist and photographer, James has written countless articles specializing in 4WD vehicles, camping, and adventure content, primarily for niche, print publications. He has also worked as the Technical Editor for Overland Journal, before returning to his heavy-duty pickup diesel roots with a regular column in the Turbo Diesel Register magazine. He frequently posts on Instagram (cross posted on Facebook), and publishes on his own website.
Hi, James. Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with us. You’ve owned an impressive number of travel trailers and campers over the years. Can you tell us about your current truck camper and why you chose that particular make and model?
James: My current camper is a Hallmark Nevada, 8.5-foot flatbed. This is my second Hallmark pop-up; both were chosen primarily for their superior insulation and cold-weather performance and overall robustness.
For over 20 years I’d been interested in a pop-up camper, but I didn’t buy one until a used 2007 FWC Hawk was mounted onto my 2011 Toyota Tundra. The Hawk confirmed that I liked modern pop-ups more than a RTT or the Kimberley Kamper, including the lack of wind flapping, so I ordered a 2012 FWC Raven to fit the extremely short 5.5-foot bed on the Tundra CrewMax. While the Toyota Tundra was a cool rig, setup for serious off-highway adventures (ARB Air Lockers, 4.88:1 gears, body armor, two winches, etc.), it was not the ideal platform for a fully-outfitted and heavy camper. The super short 5.5-foot bed was a real limitation.
The Tundra was replaced with a 2014 Ram 2500 crew cab with a 6.4-foot bed, for which I ordered a Hallmark Milner slide-in. For two years the Milner performed fantastically for my off- and on-pavement adventures. These included a winter/spring 7,500-mile round-trip to the Canadian Arctic Ocean, up to Tuktoyaktuk, and driving the infamous ice road before the now all-weather road was completed. I remain a fan of the Four Wheel Campers product and the folks who make them, however on that Arctic trip there was no comparison between my Hallmark and my friend’s late-model FWC Hawk. He had to wipe/remove condensation daily, and my condensation was so minimal that I never needed to wipe the inside of my Hallmark.
The Milner on the 2014 Ram crew cab was a great combination; however, a flatbed camper provides more living space and capacities for a given footprint. When Hallmark decided to make their first modern flatbed camper after being inundated with requests at the 2017 Overland Expo West, I committed to being their first customer.
A 2017 Ram 2500 regular cab long-bed was purchased for the sole purpose of adding an aluminum flatbed, and Hallmark’s first Nevada flatbed, which I was allowed to help design and spec.
Without being any wider than the Milner slide-in on the crew cab, the Hallmark Nevada offers 2-feet more interior width below the traditional pickup bed-sides and is 2-feet longer, on a chassis that is 9-inches shorter. There is room to have a dedicated shower/wet-bath toilet, 50+ gallons of water, two 20-pound propane tanks, a long dinette, and much more.
What mods, if any, have you made to your Hallmark camper to personalize it for long-term use?
James: The Hallmark Nevada flatbed was ordered with everything we wanted, including ducted heat to facilitate comfortable and safe use in well-below-freezing temperatures, while keeping all water systems flowing. Modifications have been few during the first two-years of ownership. Minor interior additions have included a paper towel holder and a small mirror. On the exterior I mounted a 4-foot shelf ladder to the AT Overland fuel can carriers on the back wall.
Do you use solar power or a generator to keep your Hallmark camper’s batteries topped off?
James: Mostly solar, with two 160-watt Zamp glass panels feeding two 12-volt lithium batteries. However, recent late fall and winter trips, even with good sunshine, have proven it can be challenging to keep the batteries topped. Big draws include 7.5-amps from a large Nova Kool refrigerator (6-cubic foot), with separate freezer (2.5-cubic foot), as well as a CPAP machine at night.
Recently, I purchased an extremely compact two-stroke generator from Harbor Freight that fits in one of the flatbed toolboxes. It will provide back-up battery charging when necessary, and prevent idling the 6.7L Cummins for that purpose. Of course the batteries also receive a small charge while driving. A fantastic Honda 2,000-watt Honda generator lives in my garage, but I don’t have a dedicated place to haul it, and it’s overkill for infrequent battery charging duties. It only comes along if I plan to run the air conditioner in remote locations.
Can you tell us about more about your truck? Are you over or under your truck’s GVWR?
James: I could share volumes about my current and past trucks, and they receive much attention during the spec’ing, purchase, and upfitting processes. As you know, campers are intrinsically linked to the chassis they ride upon, because they don’t have their own. The short answer is that I’m over the GVWR but under the equally conservative GAWRs.
My hauling rig is a 2017 Ram/Cummins 2500 regular-cab long-bed, with a G56 6-speed manual transmission. It was purchased specifically for the job of hauling the Hallmark Nevada flatbed unit. The sheet metal bed was removed and a 2000-Series Hillsboro aluminum flatbed was mounted. The flatbed features a headache rack that’s easy to remove, so that was done to facilitate ideal camper design and mounting flexibility. There are some nice custom and semi-custom beds made for flatbed campers, though I intentionally looked for an existing, mass-produced, rugged, and less-expensive (about 2/3s less, installed), aluminum flatbed with a proven track record in commercial/agriculture use.
All of my camper-equipped rigs, from the Tundra/FWC Hawk forward, have been slightly over the GVWR, partly because I pack heavy. I almost always camp off-grid, carry much recovery gear and many tools, and I always start with full water tanks and extra supplies for multi-day trips. Additionally, I always upfit my trucks with aftermarket bumpers and other armor. Many owners are ignorant about how much their outfits weigh, tire capacities and capabilities, and how to operate a heavy vehicle safety and efficiently. I visit commercial truck scales frequently, including immediately after buying a new truck to establish a baseline, after most major modifications, and before many trips.
People need to make their own decisions and decide what is right for their capabilities and limitations. At the end of the day it is the owners/drivers who are ultimately responsible for what and how they drive, regardless of the ratings. A lightly-loaded vehicle can be dangerous with the wrong driver and a heavily-loaded one can be safe with an expert behind the wheel.
Why did you go with a 3/4-ton truck like the Ram 2500 rather than going with a one-ton truck?
James: Related to the GVWR question, it is worth sharing that historically I would have chosen a 3500/F-350 chassis (I’m avoiding the terms one-ton and 3/4-ton because they are outdated and inaccurate). However, because I bought both of my fourth-generation Ram/Cummins diesels from dealer stock, I found and bought 2500s. Essentially the only physical chassis difference between late-model Ram/Cummins 2500s and single-rear-wheel (SRW) 3500s are that since 2014 the 2500s have rear coil springs, where 3500s still use leaf springs.
There are pros and cons to both spring designs, and some prefer one over the other for a variety of reasons; I don’t have a strong preference and would accept either. Ram’s 2500 GVWR is capped at 10,000-pounds, largely for marketing and commercial licensing reasons, not necessarily capability, and the 10,000-pound GVWR is higher than so-called one-tons from the recent past.
Regardless of the chassis or brand, it seems that nearly all camper owners upgrade their pickup’s suspension to improve handling and performance, blurring some of the differences between so-called heavy-duty 3/4-ton and one-ton diesel trucks. The most important thing to remember is that the driver is responsible for the loading and safe operation of any vehicle.
Absolutely! We agree. So did you need to make any modifications to your Ram 2500’s suspension to carry your camper?
James: For the first year I had Air Lift 1000 auxiliary springs stuffed inside the factory rear coils, preferring how they install over more traditional but higher-capacity auxiliary air springs that most use. In 2019, I made a few substantial suspension modifications. First I removed the factory rear coils and Air Lift 1000s, replacing both with aftermarket TTC-1225 coils from TufTruck. A few months later I added TufTruck’s TTC-1224 front springs, then Timbrens were mounted on the rear axle. Eventually I reinstalled the Air Lift 1000 springs inside the TufTruck TTC-1225 rear coils. One major positive of how I’ve setup the rear suspension is that I have much load carrying capacity and redundancy, with three pairs of heavy-duty aftermarket springs above the rear axle. Hellwig sway bars were fitted both front and rear. The outfit drives and handles extremely well for something that weighs almost 6-tons.
Do you have any regrets in any of your choices? Anything you wished that you had done differently?
James: Not really, but I continue to tinker because I enjoy it, and it’s also part of my automotive journalism work. I’ve been doing this a while, know what I like, what works for me, and am very deliberate about how I choose modifications, setup, operate, and maintain my rigs. As mentioned, historically I would have chosen a 3500/F-350 (or bigger), which is certainly a strong choice, and likely is the best for most.
If I was going to buy a different chassis for additional capacity and higher ratings, I’d likely purchase a DRW 3500 and convert it to SRW for better off-pavement performance. In fact, I seriously considered this option in late 2019. However, I decided that my 2500 works extremely well, and there was no need to spend the money and time making that change.
Tuning and improving trucks is fun, and if I was to buy a chassis that didn’t need any aftermarket parts it might be boring.
What kind of mileage are you getting with your setup?
James: With metric 35-inch tall tires (285/75R18), when I keep my speed around 65 mph and the conditions are right, I am often in the high 12s, or low 13s. This is very good considering the inefficient aerodynamics of my setup and the substantial amount of weight being moved. At a constant 75 mph I can get 11 to 11.5 mpg. As always, your mileage will vary, as no two outfits are identical, and the operator and chassis setup are huge variables. My manual transmission’s overdrive ratio is shorter than the top gear in current automatics, but I don’t think that hurts much. I have a smooth and efficient driving style, focusing on the fundamentals and vehicle-sympathy.
Of course, tread design has a substantial impact on fuel economy as well. The “Tread Matters” article on my website provides the details.
What tires do you currently have on your truck, and what inflation values do you typically run?
James: My decades of journalism encompasses various topics related to trucks, RVs, adventure travel, and supporting gear; however, LT tires have been a specialty. Ask me the same question months from now and you’ll likely get a different answer, because I’ll have a different set of tires on my truck that I’ll be testing.
In February 2020, I completed an editorial project evaluating the Cooper Discoverer AT3 XLT, with a specific focus on heavy application performance differences when running essentially the same size tire (width and diameter) on either 18-inch or 20-inch wheels. As a long-time 4WD enthusiast, smaller wheels and taller sidewalls have always been my preference. However, tall and weighty campers with a higher center-of-mass are different from the typical, lightly-loaded pickup or 4WD wagon. My editorial about my observations and preferences will be published on my RoadTraveler.net blog, spring 2020.
My baseline inflation pressures are 60 psi in the front and 80 psi in the rear when heavy. This can be more than necessary, as 80 psi supports 8,160-pounds per axle with 129 load-index sizes. My rear axle gross weight is close to 6,500 pounds. Higher pressures help tires run cooler, and the resulting firmer tire helps control body roll. There is plenty of load on the tires so they don’t feel harsh nor do they wear unevenly.
When running empty, I run my tires close to the minimum for the weight being carried, and use inflation tables to determine the appropriate minimum psi for the measured axle loads. I like to tinker with things that are adjustable to optimize performance and ride quality, so running less or more air is not uncommon, particularly when experimenting with a new size or tread pattern. Empty diesel pickup tire pressures for me are typically in the 50s in front, and 35–40 in the rear, depending on the tire and wheel combination.
What is your favorite piece of gear that you like to take with you on your travels?
James: This is a tough question because they’re are several things that I like about my outfit, as well as the substantial amount of recovery gear and tools that I carry. Though not really a modification, one of the things that I enjoy that is decidedly different and uncommon is my manual transmission (transfer-case too). For those who enjoy and appreciate the attributes, the driving experience and control is fun and more responsive, particularly in mountainous terrain. The factory exhaust brake also works down to much lower speeds and rpm in all gears with a manual tranny, only kicking-off near 1,000 rpm, just before idle speed.
Off-pavement one can choose the right gear for the job without computer interference and idle along without touching any pedals. Manual transmissions are no longer available in new heavy-duty pickups; Ram was the holdout, but its standard-transmission option ended with the 2018-model year.
Have you made any mistakes relating truck camper life or use of your truck camper that would be of help to our readers?
James: One doesn’t reach midlife without making numerous mistakes; however, I can’t think of any standouts. This is likely because before diving into campers I had owned several other outfits and RVs. Full-size pickups, mostly diesels, are very familiar, I’ve owned them for decades, and I know how to setup and operate them for big loads. I’ve yet to back into anything with this new rig; hope I don’t, but I’m a realist….
You’ve been to a lot of cool places in your rig? How do you find them? Word of mouth? Google Earth? Or through social media channels like Instagram?
James: Most of the places I have visited and camped have been found from more traditional sources like magazines, word-of-mouth, or personal knowledge. However, the Internet and Instagram, have also provided some inspiration in recent years.
When scouting new areas I often select the region that I want to visit, usually on a paper map, then start digging deeper by looking for interesting features and points-of-interest. My favorite digital tool is Scenic Map by GrangerFX. Scenic Maps are offline 3D topographical maps; no cellular/internet connection is needed in their use, and there is nothing to download other than the app (no map tiles, etc.). Open the app and your device will show your location. You can zoom in or out to navigate or inspect as needed. This app appears to be iOS only.
What has been the most technically challenging road or trail that you’ve tackled?
James: Likely the most technically challenging and lengthy trail I’ve driven in a truck camper was the Doll House Road in The Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. That was in 2015, in my stock-height 2014 Ram crew-cab short-bed, with 35-inch tall tires, and a Hallmark Milner. Six years prior I’d traveled the route in a much more nimble and built 2006 Toyota 4Runner with lockers and armor. My memory had faded before planning the return with bigger outfits….
The ’14 Ram/Cummins and I did fine with added clearance and support from Buckstop Truckware bumpers fore and aft, and Factor 55 recovery gear, I just took my time where needed. The challenge was leading and helping my buddy Brad Garland pilot his unlocked and only mildly-accessorized 4Runner, while pulling his relatively large Kimberley Kamper hard-sided popup trailer. With all our pauses and stops, including lunch, we spent eight hours covering 17 miles.
One area in particular, the Z-Turn, was a bit of work and took some time, but we made it through unscathed, both going in and coming out three days later. However, there were other places where Brad’s trailer fenders were crinkled. I incurred minor dents on the bottom of my pickup bed, behind the rear tires, a very common contact point on pickups. Neither of us feel compelled to take his Kimberley Kamper, which he now pulls with a larger Toyota Sequoia, to the Doll House again. I would consider going in something similar to that 2014 Ram/Milner combo, though my current 2017 Ram regular cab with Hallmark Nevada flatbed camper would be even better.
What emergency prep gear do you typically take with you on your travels?
James: In addition to appropriate and adequate clothing to prevent unnecessary exposure, I carry a fairly large complement of hand tools and recovery gear. Metric and SAE combination wrenches, 1/2-inch and 3/8-inch-drive socket sets, pliers, hammers, a few electrical bits, a tire repair kit, and air compressor all live inside the cab full-time.
Many forget that somebody traveling with you or passing-by might have skill greater than your own, but without tools their expertise may not help. It’s hard to carry everything, sometimes parts are needed, more stuff adds to the gross weight, and modern vehicles are generally very reliable.
Recovery gear is even more important to me. Maturity and judgment has reduced the number of motionless incidents, but I have been stuck many more times than I’ve had mechanical failures. My recovery capabilities start with the Buckstop front bumper which houses a Warn 16.5k heavy-duty winch and a Factor 55 Fairlead 1.5, FlatLink, and two HitchLinks. Because a winch is useless without something to tug on, I carry a Pull Pal anchor.
Additional recovery gear includes ropes, straps, hooks, and shackles from Factor 55, Warn, Extreme Outback Products, and B/A Products. An Extreme Outback Products Ultimate Recovery Shovel fills my hands when manual labor is required. Wagan Tech’s iOn Boost V10 lithium power supply is carried in the event I drain the Cummins’ starting batteries. Additionally I carry jumper cables, which are not very helpful when traveling solo, but in a pinch I could remove my camper batteries to ignite the Cummins.
It has been a long time since I locked myself out of one of my vehicles, partially because I am careful, but I also have some good habits. At least two ignition/door keys are always with me; one I use to operate the ignition and another lives on a different keychain in my pocket. Inside my Hallmark I’ve stashed yet another ignition key, and an additional set of camper keys are hidden inside the cab. Being locked-out is not the only concern, modern security keys can stop working, at the very least the battery will eventually die, so having another is smart and easy preparedness.
It is not always the big things, sometimes it’s the small things that delay or challenge us. When dozens of driving miles from anywhere (a few days walk) a truck that won’t start can be more than slightly inconvenient.
Tell us about some of your favorite places where you’ve visited so far?
James: Instead of a particular place it is more a region and attitude. I much prefer dispersed camping on public lands across the West. Including but not limited to the much of the states of Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Oregon, and even northeastern California. They provide almost endless camping opportunities within one hour, or one day’s drive from Reno, Nevada. The first Hallmark flatbed is named the Nevada for a reason. Not because I live here, but because the unit is equipped for comfortable living off-grid in the sparsely populated interior of the West. It’s not that I never stay in campgrounds, but it’s rare. Camping in remote areas that offer no infrastructure other than an unpaved road, and only with the family and friends I brought with me, are the experiences I seek.
However, I don’t limit myself to the West, in 2019 I traveled to the 100th Anniversary Celebration of Cummins Engine Company in Columbus, Indiana, then up to Washington State for the Northwest Overland Rally. Our continent is large, and there is much to enjoy; in particular I’d like to see more of Canada.
Have you had any notable run-ins with wildlife?
James: Not yet, but I’m always happy to see wildlife and also give them plenty of space. Avoiding the most popular and crowded national park campgrounds where bear (people) problems exist helps. Dispersed camping prevents repeated easy food sources for wild animals, helps keep them independent, and reduces conflicts with humans.
What foods do you like to eat when you’re out exploring?
James: For my dinner entrées I prefer to bring repackaged frozen leftovers from home. Lunch is usually a cold cut sandwich with a few chips or pretzels. Breakfast food is either high-protein cereals, cold or hot, Greek yogurt, or sometimes just a protein bar. Coffee and tea are needed!
Eggs and toast are favorite meal, but toast is difficult to make on the road without a toaster and shore power. Tortillas are my standard substitute for toast; they are used for other meals as well. I also carry several Mountain House freeze-dried meals as convenient backups.
Take a few minutes to tell us about your website.
James: My RoadTraveler.net site has never been a primary focus, as the niche magazines I’ve written for have been primarily print publications. In 2018, I started publishing more frequently, including videos and some of my detailed magazine work that had only been available to print subscribers. There is much ready and waiting to be shared, it is merely a matter making the time to prepare my work for web publication.
Do you have any other hobbies as they relate to the great outdoors?
James: Photography and hiking/walking for exercise remain favorites. I am also a casual big-game meat-hunter. In Nevada this is mostly deer, though elk an antelope are also occasionally on the menu.