In my last post I said you might want to live in a smaller vehicle that can handle bad roads and get into more remote locations. Today I want to look at specific go-anywhere vehicles and how I think they fare on the scale of comfort versus freedom. Remember, when we talk about comfort, we aren’t talking about an occasional trip, we’re talking about everything you own in the world fitting into a tiny space for the foreseeable future. Anyone can live in a Jeep 4-door Wrangler for a few weeks when you are going to go home afterwards, but it is a whole different story when the Jeep is home and there’s nowhere else to go–ever!
You need to be really honest with yourself about how much comfort you need. Living in a vehicle as small as many of these I recommend means you must be a true minimalist and live with the absolute minimum of comfort. For the majority of people it isn’t worth it, for me it is. When I first set out to live in my F150 pickup with 6×7 foot camper shell, I was carrying way too much stuff. I quickly realized that most of it had to go so I left a trail of really good stuff at thrift stores across the country. Eventually I got it down to almost nothing and the little bit that was left would fit. But as I look back at those days of driving far back into beautiful remote areas, I miss it and I am actively planning on doing it again.
One more issue we need to consider is the cost of operating the vehicle. While a true 4×4 is wonderful in getting you remote, it adds a lot of cost to maintenance, burns more fuel, and will cost much more in repairs in the long run. The act of going remote also greatly increases the risk of break-downs and damage to your vehicle. If you choose a 4×4 SUV, pickup or van, you will need a larger income to cover the increased cost of gas, maintenance and repairs.
Next, I’m going to rate different vehicles for their comfort and mobility. I will use a scale of 1-10 with 1 being least and 10 being most. Hopefully this table will help you choose:
Motorcycle: (Comfort: 0–Back-Country Ability: 10—Score: 10 of 20) Motorcycles can go deep into the Back-country, but they have no comfort because you can carry so little. As far as I am concerned they are a very poor choice as a vehicle to live in.
Small 4×4 SUV (Jeep 4-Door Wrangler): (Comfort:1–Back-Country Ability:10—Score” 11 of 20) Something like a 4-Door Jeep Wrangler or Toyota Forerunner have incredible back-road ability, but there is little comfort. You can carry a tent or Roof-Top tent, but really that is next to zero comfort if you are full-timing. You can easily do it for a little while, but do you want to do it for the rest of your life? For a few, the answer is “Yes!” I have a friend who lived in a Ford Explorer in Denver, Co and loved it. But for most of us we simply need more comfort.
Large SUV (Excursion or Suburban) 4×4: (Comfort: 3–Back-Country Ability: 8—Score: 11 of 20) The large SUVs aren’t as good off-road as the smaller ones, but they are still pretty good. They will take you wherever most legal Forest Service or BLM roads go. Usually the 4-door models will at least let you stretch out to sleep. There is a story on one of my sites about someone who converted an older Blazer to live in off-road: http://cheapgreenrvliving.com/Blazer_Off-Road.html and it is adequately comfortable for a minimalist. The fact that you can get them with a diesel engine makes them a little more attractive. For serious back-roaders, they are a decent choice.
Mini-Van (Astro AWD, Toyota AWD): (Comfort: 5–Back-Country Ability: 7—Score: 12 of 20) I think Astros are a very good choice because I’ve seen stock models go into some very rough country. You can easily add lift kits and put bigger tires on them so you can go even further if you want to. However, they are relatively small and offer little comfort. I have some very good friends who are a married couple and live in an Astro and love it. If you are on a tight budget they may be your best possible choice. As a bonus they get good mpg.
Mini-truck (Toyota Tacoma) 4×4: (Comfort: 3–Back-Country Ability: 10—Score: 13 of 20) The Tacoma is an outstanding vehicle for the Back-Country and has legendary reliability, but with their short and narrow beds, it simply doesn’t have much comfort or carrying capacity. See a story on my blog about one of the best Tacoma’s I have ever seen and make up your own mind. http://www.cheaprvliving.com/blog/living-an-adventure-in-a-toyota-tacoma-camper/
Standard Van: (Comfort: 7–Back-Country Ability: 6—Score: 13 of 20) As always, a van offers an outstanding balance of most priorities. You can’t really go wrong with a van because of its over-all balanced performance. You can add a lift-kit, bigger, more aggressive tires, and a locker to the rear end and go some pretty amazing places.
4×4 Van: (Comfort: 7–Back-Country Ability: 8—Score: 15 of 20) A 4×4 van is by far your best all-around choice, but they are hard to find and expensive when you do. For a few years Chevrolet put AWD in their Express vans, so you may try to find one of those, but it won’t be anywhere near as good as a true 4×4 system.
Pickup 4×4 with shell: (Comfort: 5–Back-Country Ability: 8—Score: 13 of 20) I lived in one of these for 2 ½ years and found it to be an outstanding choice. I was satisfied with the level of comfort and very pleased with it’s ability to go into the back-country. If you look around you can get a high-top shell which tremendously increases its comfort. Here is the story of how I built my own shell: http://cheaprvliving.com/BuildYourOwnCamper.html 4-Wheel Campers makes a pop-up with an empty shell that looks very appealing. http://www.fourwheelcampers.com/index.php/products/shell-model/
Pickup 4×4 with Small Camper: (Comfort: 6–Back-Country Ability: 7—Score: 13 of 20) As far as I am concerned, this is simply your best balance of comfort and mobility. My next vehicle will be a 4×4 Pickup with a Capri Camper on it. http://www.capricamper.com/models.html You can order them totally empty, just a shell, so that is what I will get. A very close second is a pop-top camper. I have a very good friend with one on a 4×4 diesel Ford F250. He can go lots more places than I can and is more comfortable at the same time. http://www.scattrecreation.com/northstar-pop-up-campers/northstar-model-850sc/
Pickup 4×4 with large camper: (Comfort: 9–Back-Country Ability: 3)—Score: 12 of 20). Full-size campers are so wide, long and tall that their ability to go remote is quite poor. I had always thought they were good in the back-country so I invited a friend to camp with me, but it was extremely difficult for him to get to me, and then couldn’t make it all the way back. To get as far as he did he had to cut down trees on the side of the road and cut limbs from above the trailer so they didn’t rip his rubber roof. A road the vans handled easily he was just barely able to make it through.
SUV or Pickup 4×4 Towing a Off-Road Pop-Up Trailer: (Comfort: 7–Back-Country Ability: 6—Score: 13 of 20) I’ve never owned one of these but all of them I have seen are tremendously impressive. You get a lot of comfort and very good off-road ability.
SUV or Pickup 4×4 towing a Converted Cargo Trailer: (Comfort: 7–Back-Country Ability: 6—Score: 13 of 20) I’ve been pretty satisfied with where I am able to take my trailer and if I had a 4×4 it would be even better. You can buy cargo trailers specifically designed with high ground clearance which would make it even better. Very good choice.
RVs. It’s obvious the big RVs simply do poorly on bad roads. They are so wide, long and tall that they just can’t go into remote country. But you may think a very small RV would be good. While an 18 foot Class C is better, it is not good. Don’t buy one expecting to go remote.
On a Tight Budget: An AWD Astro mini-van is a solid choice for a low-cost, go-anywhere live-aboard vehicle. Save your money and get a lift kit and bigger, aggressive tires and its even better. See these Forums for threads on lift kits:
Best Balance: Nothing beats a standard van for balance. They will take you most places you want to go. But you must be careful of mud, snow and sand and the risk of getting stuck. If you can find a posi-traction rear end, that dramatically helps or you can add a locker to the rear end which will mostly solve that problem. Ground clearance on stock vans is decent and can be improved with a lift kit and bigger tires.
Most Versatile Go-Anywhere Choice: 4×4 Pickup. You can buy 4×4 pickups in a huge range of sizes from a short bed, standard cab, mini-truck to 4-Door long bed full-size truck. Or go all out and get a 1 ton dually, crew cab with a 12 foot flat bed 4×4 then literally build a cabin on it. You can buy a 4 cylinder Toyota that gets. 25 mpg, a Ford 460 that gets 7 mpg or a Dodge Cummins Diesel that gets 22 mpg. And once you choose the size of truck and engine you want, you can put a huge range of campers on it from a tiny shell that will go to the ends of the earth or a 12 foot, 4-slide-in behemoth camper on it that is incredibly comfortable, but won’t go back very far. You have an incredible range of choices and can have exactly what you want.
Parts and service are super easy to find; with their big hoods the cost of labor is less than a van and there is a giant array of after-market accessories to improve the looks and performance of your truck. Your fuel economy will be much worse than a stock van, but that is the price you pay for versatility and far superior back-road performance.
For More Comfort, Add a Trailer: If you want more comfort with little loss of back-road performance, you can add a trailer. The small, off-road, pop-up trailers are a perfect choice for this or something like my 6×10 converted cargo trailer also works well, but not as well.