THE TRUCK CAMPER ELEVATED
A truck camper build is nothing new, but this build takes the concept to all new heights. Aaron Wirth and his wife Renee decided that they wanted to live full time on the road with their two dogs for a few years, leading them on the quest to build the ultimate home on wheels. This vehicle had to be a home office, a comfortable house, home for their two dogs, needed to pull a trailer, serve as an everyday driver, and be able to get the couple off the beaten path. This Cummins-powered Dodge 3500 Tradesman-based overland adventuremobile came together over 10 months of crazy hard work, through first-hand experience with multiple truck campers, and with input from knowledgeable overland friends and a range of automotive industry professionals.
The couple had a truck camper setup before starting this build, but it just didn’t meet their needs as full time travelers. It was based on an 2008 3500 Ram long bed double cab and had a mix of quality and not-so-quality modifications and featured a custom-built Panther Camper from Superior RV. While the rig had a 4-inch lift, 35-inch tires, was chipped and featured an upgraded exhaust and sway bars, it didn’t have a full-size spare, was a bit unwieldy at highway speeds, was loud and got pretty poor fuel economy. On top of all that, the camper wasn’t as comfortable as they wanted and there just wasn’t enough built-in storage.
After looking at the wide range of overland vehicles, truck camper builds and RVs on the market and some of the extremely high price tags the quality units demanded, Wirth decided that he’d get more bang for his buck if he designed and built the rig himself. It took him about 10 months to complete this build, which of course took longer, cost more money and required overcoming more obstacles along the way than anticipated. A build like this is also never truly finished, but the vehicle the Wirths showed at The SEMA Show 2017 is fully ready for life on the road.
The build started with a brand-new 2016 Ram 3500 chassis Tradesman crew cab, a hard-to-find fully appointed version featuring the 6.7-liter Cummins turbo diesel, AISIN HD 6-speed automatic transmission, 4wd and single rear-wheel option. This setup is durable, quiet on the road, comfortable to drive, and has tons of space in the cab and a large load capacity. That large load capacity and power is needed to haul around a Lance 825 truck camper, lots of gear and tow a trailer.
There is a fine line to walk when setting up a big truck like this to be both extremely capable off road and easy to handle on road, both around the city and on long stretches of highway. Wirth started with a full AEV 3-inch lift kit, which utilizes Bilstein 5100 shocks all around. The lift allowed him to fit 37×12.5-inch Falken Wildpeak M/T tires, which he wrapped on AEV Salta HD Wheels. To further refine the ride, add a level of adjustability and handle the large load, he added Hellwig Rear Air Bags and a custom Hellwig rear sway bar. This setup works really well in a wide range of conditions.
Next the truck needed to be properly built out to handle the impacts, obstacles and terrain it would experience when exploring off the beaten path. It was armored up with an AEV Front Bumper, Phatty Fab Custom Rear Bumper, AEV Diff Covers, and Bushwacker Fender Flares and Rocker Panel Protection. To add a level of security, especially when traveling solo off road, a Warn 16.5ti-S winch was fitted in the front bumper. An AEV Snorkel was also fitted, mostly to keep cool fresh air flowing to the big diesel. You’ll never have an issue seeing, or being seen, with the full compliment of PIAA LED lighting all over this vehicle.
The truck cab is further refined with a custom ArcForm platform/storage system in place of the back seats, which is primarily a home for the dogs. A Bushwacker mesh cargo/dog divider keeps the dogs comfortable in their new back-seat home. AMP Research PowerSteps make it much easier to get up into and down out of this very tall truck. A super loud PIAA Superior Bass Horn will wake you up if you get in this truck’s way. The cab is also fitted with rearview backup and rearview towing cameras, which are much appreciated due to the extremely limited rear visibility.
Once the truck was prepared to go anywhere and handle a load, it was time to build out the back of the truck to securely carry that load. The frame was first lengthened by 8 inces to perfectly accommodate the Lance 825 slidein truck camper. Then a very cool custom aluminum flatbed, with full-size spare tire carrier, was designed and fabricated by ArcForm, with Sherptek helping out with a nicely integrated custom camper mounting system.
To finish off the rear of the truck, a fully custom Highway Products 9-box aluminum storage system was installed. This system offers a huge amount of cavernous versatile storage space. It is regularly set up to carry: front camper jacks, a 120-watt Zamp Portable solar panel, a Magnum BBQ, two 5-gallon Front Runner jerry cans, Warn HD Epic Off Road Recovery Kit, full mechanic’s tool kit, air tools, a built-in compressor system, firewood, and an array of adventure sports gear. The storage boxes also hide the DEF and diesel fill, which have been relocated inside a locking box over the wheel well. All the boxes feature LED lighting that automatically activates when the doors are opened. The slide out 12v beer fridge might just be the storage box system’s best feature, and probably most used.
A Lance 825 short bed slide-in truck camper was installed atop the flatbed, and the entire truck was designed to precisely conform to the camper, optimizing space and creating a very clean build. The camper has all the creature comforts of home, including: a 30-gallon fresh water tank, full bathroom, dual burner stove top, kitchen sink, 3 cu/ft refrigerator with ice box, room to sleep four, 300 watts of solar, 18k BTU propane furnace, rear and side awnings, dual pane insulated windows, and a comfortable cabover queen-size bed. The camper also has the Lance Cold Weather Package, making it a great four season home. To refine the unit even further for his purposes, Wirth removed the microwave, TV antenna and air conditioner, mostly to save weight and create more storage space.
Nothing on this build came easy, as there is an extreme lack of aftermarket options designed to work on the Ram Tradesman cab and chassis base truck. There are lots of Ram 3500 parts that will generally work, but there are enough differences on this chassis to make even the most basic bolt-on accessories into a major job. Without the custom work and patience of quality professional companies like Kaiser Brake and Alignment, Arcform, and Highway Products, there is no way that this build could have happened, or have been completed to the level of refinement that it has.
One of the main goals of this build was to keep the vehicle reliable,while also being capable. To do that it was really important to keep the vehicle as light as possible, which is no easy task with the long list of options this truck and camper have. The truck weighed in at around 12,500 pounds fully loaded when showed at SEMA. Wirth expects this number to go up a touch as he continues to refine the build and his gear load, but for it to still stay well below the vehicle’s 14,000-pound GVWR.
Truly comfortable and capable overland vehicles like this are not inexpensive, either to build or to buy. Aaron Wirth estimates that it would take about $165k to replicate this build, with a lot of that expense going into the new truck, camper and one-off custom parts, like the bed and utility boxes. While there is little on the market that combines the off-road capability, on road ease, huge storage capacity and comfortable living accommodations, the few that you could compare all cost north of $200,000.
Sure, this impressive overland truck camper build is ready for the open road, or lack thereof, but there are always things to upgrade and refine. Wirth plans to work on the throttle response and power next through a DEF system delete, a tuner and possible re-gearing. Above all thought, Aaron, Renee and their two dogs plan to hit the road less traveled, exploring all the places that they weren’t able to visit over the last year during the truck build. You can expect to see this build at a variety of Ninkasi Brewing and overland industry gatherings over the next year, including King of the Hammers, Overland Expo West, Northwest Overland Rally, BC Overland Rally, and many more. With lots of adventure ideas for this new build brewing, it’s first big test will be a two-month Alaska adventure this summer. DW