Once you’ve decided on a truck camper, rooftop tent, or just a normal tent, the next step is to go out and pick a vehicle. This was a pretty daunting task for us as we knew nothing about trucks. I remember being at Overland Expo and having one of the truck manufacturers explain to me the difference between a half-ton truck and a one-ton truck. Well, we’ve come a long ways since then. We’re pretty pleased with the truck we purchased, so here’s a primer for those interested in what we got and how we decided.
The Different Types of Trucks
First off, truck & SUV manufacturers make dozens of different models that are designed for dozens of different uses. As an Overlander, one of the most important distinctions to understand between all these models is how much weight they are designed to carry. When you buy a truck (or an SUV), it will have a little sticker on it that tells you the GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating). This rating is for the total weight of the truck and all the gear, people, fuel, and stuff you put in it. You may also hear the term “payload” used — generally, payload is referring to the weight of the stuff you can add to the truck, but not the truck itself.
For example, if your GVWR was 10,000 pounds and your truck weighed 7,000 pounds, then the payload of the truck would be 3,000 pounds. In other words, you could safely add 3,000 pounds of gear and people to your truck before you hit the 10,000 pound GVWR limit. Easy, right?
In case you were wondering what the difference between a half-ton and a one-ton truck are, here is a breakdown:
- Light Trucks: Ford Ranger, Toyota Tacoma, Dodge Dakota. These trucks generally have a GVWR of 6,000 pounds or less. For example, the 2014 Tacoma has a GVWR of about 4,000 pounds and the payload is about 1,300 pounds (the truck weighs about 2,700 pounds).
- Half-Ton Trucks: Ford F-150, Dodge RAM 1500, GMC/Chevrolet Silverado 1500. Half-ton trucks were originally named ‘half-ton’ because their payload was one-half a ton (2,000 pounds). However, now they typically have higher payloads. For example, a 2014 F-150 has a GVWR between 6,500 and 8,200, and the payloads range from 1,700 to 3,800 pounds.
- Three-Quarter-Ton Trucks: Ford F-250, Dodge RAM 2500, GMC/Chevrolet Silverado 2500. Again, originally named because the payload was supposedly three-quarters of a ton, but now they are typically higher. The GVWR and payloads for these types of trucks are generally higher than the half-ton trucks.
- One-Ton Trucks: Ford F-350, Dodge RAM 3500, GMC/Chevrolet Silverado 3500. Named because they were supposed to be able to carry a one-ton payload, these trucks are also out-performing their name-sake.
You can also get much bigger trucks — for example, the Ford F-450/F-550. Again, generally the higher the number the higher the GVWR, which means you can put more stuff in it!
GVWR (Government Vehicle Weight Rating)
Whatever vehicle you choose, one of the most important things to understand is the GVWR and the payload. Overlanders typically overload their vehicles quite a bit. In all honesty, I’m guessing 90% of the Overlanders we meet on the road have vehicles that are over their GVWR — in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we were slightly over GVWR. How does it happen? Well, people, water, food, gear, and rooftop tents/truck campers just tend to weigh a lot.
Consider the example of the Tacoma given above. If your payload is only 1,300 pounds, it disappears pretty quickly when you add two adults (300 pounds total), 20 gallons of water (about 150 pounds), a several days worth of food and beer (50 pounds), clothes (80 pounds), and other gear (100 pounds) — you’ve already eaten up half your payload, and you haven’t even added a rooftop tent or truck camper! BTW, these estimates are pretty low; I’m guessing our stuff weighs much more, and your stuff likely will too.
Why is keeping under GVWR important? When you are over GVWR, you are putting yourself at a safety risk and you are putting more pressure on the vehicle than it was designed to withstand. The brakes, axles, tires, transmission, frame — all of this goes into the GVWR, so don’t think you can just add bigger brakes and you’ll be OK!
One of the biggest expenses you will incur as an Overlander is fuel for your vehicle, so the gas mileage of your vehicle can make a huge difference. The Pan-Am highway is estimated to be about 30,000 miles (you’ll likely drive further). If you only get 10 MPG and the average cost of gas is $4 per gallon, you’re going to have to budget around $12,000 just for fuel. On the other hand, if your vehicle could get 12 MPG, you’d spend $10,000 on fuel — a savings of $2,000!
Ask your mechanic about how you can improve your MPG. For trucks, you may be able to modify the exhaust, add a cold-air intake, install free-spin hubs, and more. All of these will help you get improved MPG, and the money you invest on them at the start of the trip may pay itself off pretty quickly. It’s definitely worth investigating before you leave.
As you look into gas mileage, you should also keep in mind a few other factors that can make a big impact:
- Often times, vehicles with manual transmissions get better gas mileage than automatic transmissions. It’s something to keep in mind when you make your purchase; check out the specifications for the model you are looking at to see if a manual transmission is available, and if so if the gas mileage on the sticker is better.
- Diesel engines generally get better gas-mileage than their unleaded counterparts, and diesel fuel is generally a bit cheaper than gasoline as well (this wasn’t the case in California, but every other country we have visited so far, diesel fuel has been cheaper). On the flip side, diesel engines generally cost much more than their gasoline counterparts (although they also tend to last longer).
Speaking of diesel, there is a small complication. The USA made the transition to Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel Fuel in 2007. Vehicle manufacturers knew this was coming for a long time, so they were able to prepare for it. Vehicles manufactured in 2007 and newer that have diesel engines expect the Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel Fuel.
Unfortunately, ULSD fuel isn’t readily available through central and south america. They are slowly making the transition but just aren’t there yet and probably won’t be for several years to come.
Thus, if you are a driving a 2007 or newer vehicle with a diesel engine (or considering purchasing one), you should definitely check with a mechanic. I’ve heard all sorts of things on this topic; some say it isn’t an issue, others say it will damage the engine. I do know that Erica’s parents have a 2013 Sprinter Van with a diesel engine, and they were told that filling up their tank with regular diesel fuel (they were planning a trip to Mexico) would void their warranty and also potentially ruin their engine.
On the flip side, if your vehicle was built in 2006 or earlier, it should be able to handle either type of diesel fuel (and you’re likely out of warranty anyhow).
SRW vs DRW
You may see this in truck classified ads: “SRW” or “DRW”. This is especially the case when you are looking for a one-ton truck. SRW stands for “single rear wheel” while “DRW” stands for “dual rear wheel”. Duallys (DRW) can generally carry a lot more weight (their GVWR is higher). However, you are limited in how much you can air down your tires, and I’ve heard stories about rocks or other stuff getting stuck between the wheels (which can cause both tires to go flat). Thus, unless you really need that extra GVWR, you are probably better off getting a SRW model.
Dodge RAM 3500
We were introduced to the Dodge RAM line of trucks by Marc, owner of XPCamper. He recommended we take a close look at the Dodge RAM 3500 with the Cummins Diesel engine. After some research, we really liked what we saw.
First off, that Cummins engine is amazing. It is used in tractors all around the world, so finding a mechanic for the engine while we travel the Pan-Am Highway shouldn’t be an issue. Furthermore, the engine is built to go a million miles — in fact, the engine achieves its maximum MPG only after you have driven around 120,000 miles! Speaking of MPG, it’s good news here. Marc told us he averaged between 18 and 20 MPG when driving on the highway.
In order to avoid the mess with ultra-low sulfur diesel, we decided to look for a 2006 model.
Turns out, Marc had exactly the truck for us. It was a 2006 Dodge RAM 3500 with a 5.9L Cummins Diesel Engine. It had 66,000 miles, 4 doors (quad cab), a manual transmission, 4 wheel drive, and the previous owner had put several upgrades into it — a big intimidating ARB bumper, a winch, and airbags on the back. It sounded perfect. We decided to pull the trigger and make the purchase.
Introducing Herodotus (aka Hero)
After reading (and loving) Travels with Herodotus, we decided to name our new truck Herodotus (or just “Hero” for short). Herodotus was one of the first travel writers in history. He traveled to far off lands and brought back the histories of the people he met on his journeys. Without Herodotus, we may not have stories like King Leonidas and the 300 defending the Hot Gates from the Persians. We figured it was a fitting name for the rig that is taking us on this adventure across two continents.
Side note: Marc calls our rig “Car 10″ because when we first picked it up, we kept calling our “truck” a “car”, and we were the 10th XPCamper that was built.
Here’s a closer look Hero:
GVWR & Payload
GVWR for Hero is 9,900 pounds. The curb weight of the truck is about 7,000 pounds, which makes our payload approximately 2,900 pounds. I really wanted to weigh Hero for this blog post, but haven’t found scales down here in South America yet. I’ll update the post when we get it done.
We’re not driving our truck on the nice highways that run across Canada and the USA. In reality, the roads are often curvy, with extreme gradients, and there are a lot of stops (topes will become your nightmare in Mexico). In addition, we’re often going off-road for extended periods of time (Baja, Nicoya, Osa, Guajira), and sitting in 4WD for extended periods also hurts your MPG. So we’re seeing closer to an average of 16 or 17 MPG, but it’s still quite good for such a big vehicle.
Side note: if you are calculating your MPG and it seems inaccurate (on the low side), you may want to check the size of your tires. If the tires aren’t the same size the truck/SUV was built with, it’s likely that your odometer isn’t computing your vehicle mileage correctly. The reason is that if you put larger tires on your truck, for each turn of the tire, you are actually going slightly further than what the computer in the vehicle thinks. This may be a small amount, but it can make a difference when you compute MPG. This web page has a good write up on the issue, and this web page has a great calculator so you don’t have to do the math.
Cummins 5.9L Turbo-Diesel Engine
Our truck has a 24-valve 5.9 liter turbo diesel engine built by Cummins. The diesel engine is significantly more expensive than the gasoline engine also available in the Dodge RAM 3500, but it gave us great peace of mind knowing that we’d be getting an engine built to run for a million miles that would also give us better MPG. In addition, we’ve heard that diesel engines perform better at higher altitudes than gasoline engines. Knowing that we’d be driving at some pretty high altitudes in South America, this was reassuring.
The previous owner had installed an ARB bumper, so we got this when we bought the truck. I don’t know if it’s something I would have added myself after the fact, but we really like it.
First off, it just makes us feel safer when we drive the truck. Unless we hit a moose or a cow, this bumper is probably stopping the majority of the damage. To date, it’s Bumper: 1, Chickens: 0 (sorry mom, that chicken came out of nowhere).
Second, the bumper gives the truck a military and/or private-security feel to it. In other words, it’s intimidating. I see that people are often wary of our truck, and I attribute much of this to the look and feel that the bumper gives the truck. That’s fine with me; I’d rather have people stay away from the truck than walking up and poking around.
We’ve only used these a couple of times. In general, we try not to drive during the night, and you can really only use these while you are off-road (you don’t want to blind the other drivers). That said, similar to the ARB bumper, I think these make the truck look intimidating, and we may still find some use of them as we travel through South America.
While we’ve never needed the winch for ourselves, it’s one of those peace of mind items. We have used it to pull other cars out that were stuck.
Tires & Wheels
We put Mickey Thompson 17″ classic black wheels and Cooper Discoverer STT LT295/70R17 tires on Hero. We carry one full-sized spare (underneath the flat-bed in the back). We have only had one flat tire the entire trip so far, and it happened in our shipping container. It actually turned out to be a leaky valve-stem — the tire was fine.
When you think about tires and wheels, it’s very important to go back to the GVWR of your vehicle. Make sure that the weight supported by your tires and wheels is in line with your vehicle GVWR. For example, on Hero, the Mickey Thompson wheels are rated to 3,250 pounds (each) and the tires are rated to 3,195 pounds.
If you plan on taking the vehicle off-road, you should purchase an air compressor so you can air up/down on your own. If you are going to be airing up and down often, you are going to cause extra wear and tear on your valve stems (we did, that’s why our tire went flat when we stuck it in the shipping container). Suggestion: buy a dozen valve stems and a valve-stem replacement tool before you hit the road. It will probably cost you less than $5.
Marc built us some custom under-armor for our truck. If you are heading down lots of dirt or gravel roads, this is something you should consider. A random rock bouncing up off the road and striking something critical could really ruin your day.
4WD Manual Transmission
Hero has a 6-speed manual transmission. First gear (L) is only necessary on very steep hills, so you typically just start in second gear.
You can drive in 4WD (high or low) or 2WD (high). 4WD low was definitely necessary for some of the roads we’ve done on the trip.
Our manual transmission may be a bit better for gas mileage, and it’s nice to be able to easily downshift on big hills. On the other hand, city driving with a manual transmission isn’t very fun.
Our differential is not limited slip or locked in any way. We upgraded our differential covers to Mag-Hytec covers, which provide additional cooling capacity and were recommended by Marc. We also filled our differentials with an extremely high-quality red line oil before crossing the border into Mexico, and we just had it checked in Colombia and the mechanic said it still looks brand new.
We have air bags on the rear axle. While they don’t increase our GVWR, they do make the truck carry the load better. They also allow us to balance the truck if we have more weight on one side than the other.
Before we left, I replaced all of the brake pads. Some of the road gradients in central and south america are nuts (just wait until Guatemala). We didn’t upgrade our brakes in any other way, but I’ve run into a few other Overlanders who have beefed up their brakes to help carry the heavier load they are putting on their rig.
We upgraded the exhaust on Hero, but I’m not sure how much of a win this is giving us on MPG. On the plus side, it does look pretty bad-ass and shiny when it isn’t covered in mud.
As mentioned in other posts, we splurged and bought some fancy seats to replace the aging and stained seats that came with our truck when we bought it used.. So far, they have been worth every penny!
We added front and rear cameras (video display sits on the dashboard) to Hero to help us when backing up and driving up steep roads. We keep this on pretty much all the time and use it as a rear view mirror replacement. If you aren’t familiar with driving a rig of this size (we weren’t), this is definitely an upgrade you should consider — it made us much more comfortable when we were learning to drive the truck.
Side Step Rails
We added side-step rails to Hero to make it easy to get in the vehicle. We’ve also found that if you are going up a rocky road, these will generally bottom-out first against any big rocks you are crawling over. This helps protect the doors and other parts of the truck from damage.
Erica has discovered another trick with the side step that comes in handy every now and then. Drop her a line for this secret tip.
Hero had a 35-gallon tank when we bought it, but we decided to upgrade to a 60-gallon Titan Fuel Tank. Why?
Well, first off, we wanted to avoid carrying around jerry-cans of diesel. Jerry cans are messy and if they aren’t hidden away or locked up they are targets for thieves.
Second, this extends the range of the truck quite a bit, meaning we don’t have to worry about running out of fuel. Realistically, there are only a couple of times we’ve needed that extra range (we used it in Alaska on the Dalton Highway and we used it in Colombia in the Guajira Peninsula). We’ll also probably be using the extended range as we explore more parts of Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.
Finally, having a huge gas tank can save you money on fuel. You can pick and choose when to fill it completely. We were able to completely skip purchasing any fuel in Belize because we heard it was more expensive in Belize than in Mexico (we filled up right on the Mexican side of the border). You can believe we’ll go into Ecuador on empty and leave full due to the $1/gallon fuel available there.
The main downside of getting a giant fuel tank (in addition to the extra cost) is the additional weight of the extra fuel. Fuel weighs a lot — probably around 8 pounds per gallon. Adding another 25 gallons of fuel to our truck also adds another 200 pounds. If you do this upgrade, keep your GVWR in mind.
Other Stuff We Considered
After we purchased the truck, I started talking to every Dodge RAM owner I saw (at the gas station, at the grocery store, at stop signs, etc). Mostly I was trying to glean some advice about preventative maintenance and potential mechanical issues to look out for.
FASS Fuel Pump
One item that kept coming up was a supplemental fuel pump. Multiple people mentioned the FASS Fuel Pump. My understanding is that this is not a complete replacement for your original pump, but it just acts as a supplemental pump so the main pump doesn’t work as hard. We didn’t install this upgrade, but we seriously considered it.
One person I met told me to buy one of every sensor that the truck has. I didn’t (knock on wood, no issues so far). However, the point should be taken seriously: while there are great welders in central and south america, replacing a sensor is going to be complicated. Most likely, you’ll have to ship it from the states, which can be expensive and a real pain to deal with.
Cold Air Intake
We considered adding a cold air intake. The benefit of a cold air intake is generally higher MPG. I believe it may also add a bit of extra horsepower. We just didn’t think we’d see the benefit of doing this upgrade over the length of the trip, so we decided to skip it.
We never seriously considered adding a snorkel, but our differentials do have snorkels on them. If you are going to take your rig through deep water, make sure your differentials have snorkels on them — otherwise you’ll probably need to replace the differential fluid.
I talked briefly to Marc about adding an engine brake. You have probably heard big-rigs use these as they go down steep hills (they are very loud). Our brakes have been fine so far, but there have been times in Colombia and Guatemala where they did get very hot going down some of the insanely steep roads they have. Instead, we down-shift and use our transmission to assist the brakes on steep hills.
I really wish we would have upgraded to reservoir shocks. These shocks maintain performance even when driving for extended periods in hardcore off-road situations due to their superior cooling ability.
On many 4WD vehicles, before you shift into 4WD, you have to lock the front hubs. On Hero, the hubs are always locked, which allows us to shift on the fly into 4WD. It’s great to have shift-on-the-fly 4WD, but if the hubs are always locked it decreases your MPG. There are conversion kits to add locks back to the hubs. Again, we considered it, but decided against it.
Issues Encountered on the Road
As we still have close to an entire continent to drive, this is the knock-on-wood section of the post. So far, the truck has performed wonderfully. Before we left on our trip, we took Hero into a mechanic and had them look him over with a microscope. We spent some serious money in order to fix issues with the steering, u-joints and ball-joints as well as just doing some preventative maintenance like replacing brake pads. We did this at a Dodge dealership, so we probably could have saved some money if we had taken it to an independent shop.
Here is the list of the issues we’ve encountered with our truck while we’ve been on the road:
- We had a leaky valve stem (probably due to airing up/down the tires), which caused our tire to go flat. This first happened when we shipped across the darien gap, and it was pretty difficult to refill the air in the tire when the truck was still in the cargo container. Click here to read more. Valve stems are easy to replace and they cost less than $1.
- We blew the fuse for the 12-volt outlet inside the truck cab when in Guatemala. I had mistakenly bought the wrong type of fuses for our truck, but we were able to find a replacement in a little shop.
- In Oaxaca, Mexico, one of our fog lights burned out. I was able to find replacement bulbs at a local auto store.
- The bolt holding our winch line was stripped. We had actually used it to pull another truck out of the sand without issue and only discovered the issue later when we unwound the line completely in Bogota at Iguana 4×4. It was an easy fix to just use a slightly larger bolt.
Other than that, we have had no issues while on the road. I consider all the issues listed above to be extremely minor — the car has never broken down to a point where it couldn’t be driven (even with the leaky valve stem, it was a slow leak so I was able to fill it with our air compressor and drive on).
Whatever vehicle you choose, I would try to focus on a couple of key points:
- GVWR & Payload: your vehicle needs to carry you, your camper/tent, and all your stuff. This probably weighs a lot more than you think. Make sure you aren’t putting yourself in an unsafe situation by greatly exceeding your vehicle’s GVWR.
- MPG: one of your top expenses (if not the top expense) will be fuel. Take this into account when purchasing your vehicle and keep in mind after-market modifications that may help increase your MPG and save you money.
- Safety & Comfort: remember, you’re going to be driving this rig for 30,000+ miles — you will want to be comfortable and safe while doing so. Make sure your suspension and brakes are ready for the trip, and consider other add-ons like a bigger bumper, a winch, or replacement seats.
I hope this helps future adventurers as they find their perfect Overland vehicle. If you enjoyed this blog post, there are several other blog posts you may be interested in, including our posts on securing our vehicle (part 1 and part 2), and our XPCamper Build post.