By Dave B.
I want to begin by saying welcome to all who follow Autoramblings.com and thanks to my good friend Lloyd for letting me use this web site to feature a vehicle that does what many RV’s can’t do; participate in the art of four-wheel off-roading. With this being said, I don’t want to offend others who have purchased similar vehicles who disagree with my postings.
I am not a four-wheel drive expert by any means. There are many similar rigs out there that can travel off-road and I respect these owners and their choices. I wish to promote off-roading, not argue over technical issues. There are many companies that do four-wheel drive conversions that put out high quality work, but I will be keying on the Sportsmobile conversion here. Responses that are positive concerning equipment, safety, or exploration of other areas will be much appreciated. At this time I do not plan to respond to other posts dealing with my writings.
On the flip side – I refuse to get into a debate with environmentalists who view off roading as a vicious attack on Mother Nature. Extremists can take over a web site and ruin its intended idea. I will ask Lloyd to moderate this section and remove these kinds of responses. This is the author’s opinion and does not reflect on other posts within autoramblings.com.
I am mainly posting here for people who are looking for a method of RV’ing off the beaten track. As an avid backpacker I understand how some individuals can destroy our back country with motorized vehicles, but with a little care and common sense we can preserve our natural resources as an enjoyable, recreational asset for years to come. I am not going to get in to a political debate over off roading. If you don’t like the channel, change it! Many times I have hauled out garbage that others have left behind and I suggest all who participate in off roading do the same. Blazing new trails and tearing up existing ones to see what you can do only does harm to our hobby. There are specific places to “tear it up” that are designed for just that kind of activity, but most of the areas I visit are fragile. Respect it or loose it! Unfortunately, I have found that more destruction is done by self-centered individuals who do not care about the preservation of our “United States outback”. With the advent of SUV’s, more and more pressure is being put on our back country. Thank God that many 4X4 enthusiasts and clubs regard our back country as a sacred resource. Although I do not belong to any of these groups, for the most part their bylaws make common sense. I plan to join CORVA (California Off Road Vehicle Association) in the future and I would encourage all who enjoy off-roading to do the same. Just think of the support the industry could have if all persons who own SUV’s would voice a positive view of this hobby. Anti off-road activists do their best to shut down vehicle trails every year. Much of this is due to the lack of support by the off-road community voicing their view. If I can convey anything in this article it would be this; respect our natural resources to help promote and secure our wilderness for various activities including off-road driving . Also on a side note, I don’t plan to make this a blog, rather a rough guide to areas that I have explored. This might be helpful for others who plan a trip to these areas or those who are just arm chair explorers. I take delight in web sites that show scenic areas even if I don’t plan to visit there. I hope you enjoy the snap shots of my journeys. From time to time I might update a section with added pictures. I am not a writer and have found that sometimes I make mistakes. I’m only human so please give me a break. Downloads might be an issue for some but I plan to keep each post as small as possible. Enjoy.
I have been a camper and backpacker most all of my life. I started camping with my parents in a little trailer that my folks purchased in the early 60s. I will never forget the smell of the propane lantern inside the trailer that also kept us warm and sitting around a camp fire cooking hot dogs. The site of the fire fall off Glacier Point, in Yosemite, when I was young is embedded in my mind forever. Camping became a staple in my life during those early years and as most people do, we upgraded our equipment. As I grew older, I found out how nice it was to be secluded. My parents enjoyed the close company of people; something I called a sardine can. I learned to dislike it. It became more difficult to find campgrounds that were devoid of the masses, so I started to backpack to get away from all the people. Lloyd has accompanied me on several trips both camping and backpacking that will last for a lifetime in our memories. Soon backpacking became the “in” thing. Camping became a thing of the past. Unfortunately, as the years went on, age was catching up with me and it became difficult to pack in to those secluded areas. Still I could not give up the mountains and wanted to visit them more on a regular basis. I was looking for something to get me into the wilderness without tearing up my body. Not wanting to pull a travel trailer, I looked into camper units to put on the back of my four-wheel drive truck. I opted to keep tent camping because of the trouble of taking a camper unit on and off, besides I really had no place to store one. I started buying items to make camping easier and luxurious. I bought a little cargo trailer to pull that could handle the big stuff. The tents I have owned have all served their purpose but with all the elements that Mother Nature threw at me, camping was best during good weather and I really did not care to set one up in the dark. Another thing I was getting tired of was loading all the camping equipment. By the time I had all the stuff loaded I was a little exhausted and grumpy. The last thing I wanted to hear form someone was “what’s taking you so long”. Usually I would snap back “as long as it’s going to take”. Being that most of the equipment for the base camp was mine, I guess my friends thought it was my responsibility to load it. I hated being rushed packing up for a trip. But coming home was the worse part of all. In the summer our average temperature toward afternoon can be well over 100 and unloading became an unwanted chore to say the least. So I was at a cross road trying to find a solution to my camping nightmare. I had thought how nice it would be to have a vehicle that I could pack days before the exit date. And how great would it be to get home without the need to put everything away. That would round out a trip nicely. So I was on a mission to find the perfect rig.
This is what I was looking for:
- A 4×4 vehicle.
- The ability to pull a trailer or boat.
- A vehicle small enough to use as a backup rig or daily driver.
- Living quarters large enough to house 2 people or 1 person with a lot of equipment.
- The ability to stock and store all my food and equipment days before the departure date.
- A vehicle that has air conditioning and heating units that can be used while hooked up to shore power.
- The ability to park on my driveway.
- Diesel engine.
- A price around $100K.
- The ability to be a self contained shelter during adverse weather.
I would need a kitchen with a sink, running water, and a cooking area. A bathroom or portable head at minimum plus a shower, but the latter would be a luxury. I enjoy a variety of outdoor activities including bass fishing and astronomy, so being able to overnight was a must. And as a back country enthusiast, I had to have four-wheel drive to get into the rough stuff. I looked into many different vehicles, one being a class B van conversion made by a company called Roadtrek. When I got a chance to look at one, the inside seemed cramped, and being low to the ground it was not what I was looking for. Being on the larger side of life, I wanted some elbow room. Besides I needed a 4×4 with reasonable ground clearance. Looking further I found some nice four-wheel drive motor homes. The Earth Roamer turned my head as well as rigs from Revcon and Xplorer. But these were well beyond my price range. The Chinook Baja was about 120K and in my range but all these rigs seemed too large for a daily driving vehicle. I had about 25 feet to park on my driveway, so the vehicle also had to fit without sticking over the sidewalk. Westfalia, who makes Volkswagen conversions, also makes a 4X4 version but I needed something that could pull a heavy trailer. I started looking at Jeeps (a vehicle I plan to own someday) with tent trailers but I wasn’t sold on the concept. Jeeps are light weight and are limited to pulling small trailers so this was out. It was turning out like Goldilocks and the three bears, too big or too small, not “just right.” So it was back to the web. There are many companies that do 4X4 conversions for special purposes such as fire departments, ambulances, and the common off roader as well. A few of these in my area include Salem Kroger, Advanced 4WD Systems, and even GTRV (Westy) who will build to suite from what I had gathered. I was sure there were more so I kept hitting the web. Quadravan came up but I could not find where they were located. Then I found a company, practically outside my back door, called Sportsmobile. Sportsmobile, or SMB, is a US based company that builds van conversions similar to the 4X4 Westy pop up conversion. SMB has three locations in the lower 48 that do conversions and the Fresno factory (SMB West) was less than 90 miles away. The big difference between SMB’s Fresno site and other van conversion companies is that they will build to your specs more or less. I also found out that the four wheel drive conversion is done on site. This company offers a 4×4 conversion that is engineered well above stock specifications. Even their two-wheel drive units looked nice, but I was captivated by the web sites four-wheel drive section. Some of the links in the 4X4 sections at Sportsmobile.com were informative and the images alone are worth a look. There are a number of floor plans to choose from plus you can shift them around to suit your needs. SMB will also add (at request) many custom items that they don’t normally offer, provided it’s within reason. Even though I could not believe that a van conversion would be roomy enough for me, I drove down to take a look with a buddy of mine. Upon arrival we were greeted and shown to the showroom. The first thing we noticed was a 60’s era Volkswagen bus with a little pop top camper on the roof. This is SMB’s main marketing concept, making pop top campers which they call a penthouse top or PH.
Even though they make hard top models, I wanted to see the PH top. Inside the showroom we got a look at a 4×4 conversion designated as a 50 plan. When the side door was opened we both said “WOW” at the same time. I was totally surprised on how roomy it looked. The PH was in the up position and there was well over six foot of head room. Later I was shown that with the PH up there is a bed stowed on the roof, and when lowered it provides a spot where you can sleep surrounded by vinyl windows with an elevated view.
With the windows open (there are screens to keep out bugs) ample breeze is available but you better be on good terms with your spouse because there isn’t a lot of room up there. I knew at this point that I might have found the perfect vehicle for my needs. It was roomy yet compact. I found many models also had a bench seat the made into a larger bed which would be more suitable for 2 people. OK, get into an argument with your second half and head to the PH bed or get kicked out of the PH and bunk down below. The floor model also had a propane cook top, refrigerator, microwave, inverter, sink with hot and cold water, plus a porta potti. One of the best options I found was adding a solar array to the roof and many of the vans in production were outfitted with this option.
This gives you the ability to stock the vehicles refrigerator days before you have to leave, something I had to have. SMB also offers a Sprinter van that didn’t meet my needs but we saw several that were made into toy haulers for the dirt biker. The Sprinter also is sized to fit between larger RV’s and the standard Sportsmobile.
The company was working on a four wheel drive version of this van. It would be helpful in areas when you need extra traction where a off road vehicle would not be needed.
OK I was sold, so now the confusion on what to order. Extended body (EB) or regular body (RB)? Gas or what I really wanted, a Diesel. And what color? Although there are some items that I am sorry that I put on my van, there were a few I wished I would have ordered. Some of the items you order are obvious but others aren’t. It’s important to look at the more critical production line items that are installed before the van is close to its delivery date. Some options have to be installed during a specific time while the van is under construction. A few options such an awning can be added at a later date, but things like the solar panels must be pre wired during construction. A good rule of thumb is to research what others have done and use the SMB staff as a resource. Their customer relationship is like none I have ever dealt with. You never get pushed into something by the sales people. For instance when I asked about the awning, they made me aware that it is subject to wind and might even damage the vehicles body. They offered to install it at a later date or wait until I was sure I wanted it. For additional information, there are a couple of yahoo user groups that help immensely. Posting a question or accessing the archives can help you decide what you want, or more important what you don’t want. One disadvantage of buying a Sportsmobile is it can take up to six months for delivery if you design your van. There are a few floor models available from time to time, but most people choose to custom pick what they want. It’s kind of an exciting wait with a lot of tweaking as you make your decision on how you want it to turn out.
My van ended up at about $116K (Sept. 2005), but it has been worth it IMO. I also ordered a trailer SMB calls the Rock Crawler Trailer. On local trips I always haul the trailer if I plan to stay out over 2 days.
It helps with the larger camping items that I use to make a base camp. I even haul wood up so I don’t have to gather it for a relaxing fire. But the great thing about a Sportsmobile is the ability to setup and tear down quickly giving you the opportunity to jump from place to place. The vans are small enough to camp at most any campground and with off road capabilities you can find you own spot for a quick stay over.
In an upcoming post I will go over what I ordered, what I should have asked for, and some of the newer options I have on my wish list. I will also go over a few technical issues. Sportsmobile has been very prompt with working out the bugs that occur with a vehicle that is as unique as this one is. I did expect some problems but being close to the Fresno site, it’s not too much of a problem. For the most part I have been very happy with my purchase and would definitely do it over.
Maybe, I will see you on the trail.