FROM DREAM TO REALITY
From the desk of Michael Van Pelt
I have been asked many times how I got the idea to build an Expedition Vehicle, but I must admit, it was not MY idea. Some of the ideas are mine, but the original thought was not.
Travelers have been using various forms of “expedition vehicles” since the development of the wheel.The seed from my ideas originally came from a small article in the National Geographic Magazine back in the 80’s. I mostly remember the photographs of a military looking Mercedes Unimog going up and over sand dunes and thinking that my 4×4 pickup truck wouldn’t do that. What made this so unique was that it had a small basic rectangular expedition camper box attached as a bed. I kept referring to this original off-road expedition vehicle that I saw in the magazine over the course of 25 years. Although this world travel vehicle was homemade, I kept thinking how neat it would be to travel like this. You could go anywhere you wanted to go, stay as long as you wanted to stay, and really explore the world.
In the last 10 years my thoughts have drifted back to this article and that extreme expedition RV many times, mostly because of the frustrations that I experienced with all of the different four wheel drive motorhomes, off-road campers, and 5th wheels that I have owned. It seemed that every time I went where I wanted to go in my RV, I would get stuck. I got tired of being attached by an electrical umbilical cord to posts beside slabs of concrete, surrounded by hundreds of people in the same situation that I was in.
I mean, RV’s are supposed to be self-contained, right? If they are self-contained, stand-alone units, and I wanted to run the air conditioning, then why should I have to plug it in? What if there wasn’t a dump station to deposit waste into? Some of the other things that always irritated me were the squeaking of the cabinets and furnishings, with the blinds banging back and forth while negotiating corners, and heading for the next asphalt/concrete jungle of like-minded individuals.
I sat down and made notes on what I did not like about the campers and RV’s that I had owned. If I could have one built just the way I wanted, what would that be? My mind kept going back to the original Unimog expedition vehicle, and after some internet research, I learned that the Unimog in the USA still existed. Oh, they had grown up a lot; in fact, the Unimog I saw in the original article would fit in the bed of the new Unimogs which were on the market. The old Unimog top speed was only mid-40 mph, while the new ones were only limited at 70 mph because of the tires.
The design is based around this new Mercedes Unimog, and what I would want in an Expedition Vehicle that would take me anywhere I wanted to go in the world. That was exactly what I had planned to do with it. The first trip I planned was in the U.S. as a “shakedown.” The 2nd trip I planned was to South America. I knew that to take either of these 2 trips the way that I wanted to take them was going to require something a lot different than anything I had ever seen.
I knew that fuel is available worldwide: Diesel, Propane, Gas, everything. However it is sometimes not available in the spot that you want it, or need it. I didn’t know at the time that you could cross a border and find that electrical, propane, or even water connections could be totally different from connections we used in the U.S. So what did I want in this original vehicle?
I was convinced that I wanted the same things in this 4×4 RV that I would want if I was in a boat in the middle of the ocean for months at a time. I wanted a chassis that would be strong enough to carry anything I wanted to put on it; powerful to give me comfortable speeds; an overland expedition vehicle that would give me off-road capability; that would take me places that a regular pickup truck would not go – and, of course, bring me back. I wanted to be able to travel with large enough capacities in fuel, water & electricity storage that I could throw that umbilical cord away.
I didn’t want to have a vehicle that I could take 1 lengthy trip and the vehicle would be worth half as much as I spent on it. One thing I noticed on the other RV’s that I had bought, was that if you were willing to buy one that even had been driven 15,0000-20,00 miles, it was worth a fraction of a new one. The reason they were worth a fraction was that they were always built on light truck chassis that were considered, by most people, to be “worn out” at 80-100,000 miles. Because of using a light truck chassis, the compromise of weight verses quality, always lost out to weight. In a nutshell, they were just built cheap in order to keep the weight down. Everything had to be kept extremely light so as not to overload the typical American 4×4 motorhomes chassis.
Because of all of this, I wanted to have at least a medium-duty chassis to heavy-duty chassis. I wanted 4 wheel-drive, high ground clearance, aggressive tires, locking differentials, and enough gears to go highway speeds or over rock-crawler terrain. The Mercedes Unimog fit the bill as this original chassis.
So, in building an expedition off-road camper, I was determined to get rid of the umbilical cord, which meant going with the appliances of an ocean going vessel, which translated into Diesel, the most available fuel on the planet. In researching the available appliances for this vehicle, I learned that there were some very incredible options out there. Furnaces and Heaters for water that were incredibly small, extremely efficient, yet able to do the job of a lot larger platform than I intended to build. I wanted the batteries to be maintained, even on days when I did not intend to drive the vehicle. I really did not want to go with generators, because my experience with generators were that they were typically only used for A/C, and when they were called upon, they were temperamental because they did not get used enough to keep the fuel from gumming up.
I wanted something that was comfortable for 2 people. I didn’t feel like I needed the luxury of some of the high-end land yachts because I was looking for adventure in the wild, not luxury in the asphalt jungle. What I ended up with was a mixture of both. The original prototype had 130 gallons of usable water that could be filled from a hose or pumped from a stream. It had 200 gallons of usable fuel. The fuel was diesel, which provided the necessary fuel for hot water, furnace, cooking, and transport of the vehicle. I put solar panels on the roof and 4-250 amp hour gel cell batteries which provided enough backup power to run everything except the A/C unit.
I finally completed this expedition vehicle (XV) in the spring of 2006. Upon completion, after our initial “shakedown” cruise to the Southwest US, we shipped it from Miami to South America. It quickly became apparent that the design and precautions that I had made were necessary for this type of a trip. It was unusual to find propane, which we thankfully did not require. In a total of about 1 year of travel, we only stayed in 2 campgrounds, both of which had facilities to dump waste. At this point, you are probably wondering what we did for waste disposal. We had run across a unique device called a “cassette” toilet. We had not seen this in any camper we had ever owned. A cassette toilet looks very similar to a regular RV toilet and operates much the same, but the difference becomes apparent when it is time to dump the waste. From the exterior of the off-road XV, you open a door and pull out a sealed canister that is much like the 2-wheeled carry-on luggage that everyone is familiar with. Once the unit is on the ground, pull out the retractable handle, and wheel it to any available toilet.
In 1 year of overland travel, we never found the need to plug in our expedition vehicle to electricity. We had enough water capacity that, if needed, would have lasted 2 weeks. The biggest test was floating down the Amazon River for a week while living in the vehicle, keeping the refrigerator on (which ran off of 12 volts), cooking food, and doing all of the necessary things for living (including all of the “necessary” electronics of computers, sat phone, camera batteries, etc.) without having to plug in or re-supply anything. Then we got off of the barge and let the vehicle continue down the Amazon River, while we went and played in the Jungle. The unit self-maintained itself like it was designed to do.
Another outstanding test of the expedition camper came in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, where we left it parked for 2 weeks while we took a trip to Antarctica. The temperatures were very cold, so we left the furnace on low, just in case. The refrigerator was on with all of our food supplies in it, we left, and it rained for almost the entire 2 weeks. The available sunlight during the periods it was not raining and the photovoltaic (solar) cells, mounted on the roof, kept the batteries maintained the entire time we were gone. We returned to find the battery capacity at 96%. I must say, that if the opportunity had arisen to plug in the vehicle, I would have done so, but I had designed it for 110v 60 cycle power, which was not available in South America.
The Many Uses of Our Expedition Vehicles
“Uses:” What can you do with it?
The obvious answer is “about anything you want to.”
The rest of the answer is a bit more complicated. What does an airplane at altitude and a ship at sea have in common? Answer – if something breaks down, you have a problem — possibly a BIG problem. When we were designing our GXV Expedition Vehicles after our prototype, we had decided that all of the marine systems that were used on the prototype had performed so well that we were on to something. But in the nearly year long trip, I was all the time very appreciative of the marine-grade quality of the systems installed. But even in the best quality systems, you wish you had the airplane’s answer to the same problem. See, when airplanes are at altitude, they must have the best systems out there, but the really good planes, always have a backup, or more than one way to accomplish the same function.
Now, if we were building on a light truck chassis or smaller, we would not have the luxury to consider backups. But being a Boy Scout when younger taught me to be prepared. So I have always wanted to cover all of my bases. With a medium duty chassis, you get the best of all worlds. You get something small enough to maneuver in small towns and cities, and the turning radius of something less than a crew cab pickup. You get the ground clearance that Hummers dream about, when they dream about growing up. Yet you can haul anything you would want to load. It just doesn’t get any better than this!
Yes, we have the most incredible diesel furnace that uses so little diesel that the fuel tank could be a child’s sippy cup. But we learned in Bolivia that these little diesel heaters, while magnificent, at very high elevations do not always work as they should. At 16,000 or above, even in the Summer, it is Winter! This is a good place to have a backup. Our generator that also provides the A/C system at 33,000 BTU’s, also provides Heat at 33,000 BTU’s. It also provides the 110v power to the hot water heater backup element. The hot water heater is a stainless steel, highly insulated, high-quality, marine hot water heater that is tied into the motor of the truck so you have hot water when you stop for the night. It is also coupled with a diesel hydronic heater that is also incredibly miserly with fuel.
Oh, did I tell you? The generator, at .25 gallons per hour, is the industry’s most economical and efficient system available. The big fuel tanks could almost be for show. But we like to look at the fuel tanks as an escape pod to take us where crowds are just a memory.
We have another fuel saving device, called a diesel cook-top, which works incredibly well under almost any conditions. Then again, at very high elevation, these diesel devices don’t work as well as they do at sea level, But, neither do I. Its backup is the latest greatest technology of a microwave oven . . . that bakes, convects, & grills. If these 2 systems are not enough, I guess you could always break out the BBQ grill.
Did you know that most of the world does not have 110v power? Sure you did, but did you even think about going to these places, and you may need to plug in? Well, we thought about that, too. So, here is what we though the solution. Our world revolves around 110v power, so we had to have that. We have a 110v Inverter and 110v Shore Power. But if you don’t have shore power, you can draw from the ample AGM battery bank. If you are in an area where the world does not revolve around 110v, 60Hz power, we also put in a 230v, 50Hz inverter. But what if you are drawing the batteries down faster than the amply-sized solar panels will replace it? Not likely, considering our highly-efficient LED’s and florescent lighting and 12v systems. Even more unlikely considering that the only thing that needs the inverter is the microwave. But let’s say, for fun, that you are in an area that is not getting much sunlight for long periods of time. Well, the 4wd off road expedition vehicle will charge the batteries while you are driving through a fairly simple system of a battery isolator and separator, but the power supply unit ingeniously monitors both the house battery and truck battery through the isolator and separator system. It will automatically start itself to keep the battery bank at its peak.
Four ways to provide power seems a bit of overkill, but they are very light-weight systems, all of these stacked systems just plain make it easier to sleep at night when you are 30,000 feet in the air or 1,000 miles out to sea, or 3 days down a dusty road. With a total weight at around 20,000 pounds, we think it is a good balance.
Now all of that is the long answer to say that with solar power, minimum-use diesel appliances (that will also use bio-diesel), these Extreme Expedition RVs are the most efficient and environmentally friendly vehicles available. They truly will take you to places you have only dreamed about going in a motorhome. They still have enough GVW left over that your wife can ruin your brand new MasterCard on souvenirs and you can still get them home.
If Europe had an equivalent, with the dual and triple backup systems, they would be twice as expensive as the GXV 4×4 XV. Oh wait, they already are twice the price! So, with our GXV Expedition Vehicles whenever you want to go, wherever you want to go, you will still have the money left over to GO there!
It’s a big World. Explore it!
You might just run out of World, before you run out of the Truck.
However, by then, your kids might be ready to take their turn!
Take a look at our Expedition Vehicles models
or call us at (417) 582-5050 if you have any questions.
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