How We Picked A Travel Vehicle

We’ve had a few people lately ask us how we decided on the truck instead of a _____ (RV, SUV, Van, etc) for our travels. We actually put a lot of thought into it over the span of about 6 months. We had a few needs to meet:

  • Cargo room – Since we’re planning to do a good bit of camping, we needed enough room to accommodate a tent, sleeping stuff, cooking gear, etc.
  • Passenger room – There are two of us and a dog and we didn’t want to be on top of each other every time we’re in the vehicle.
  • Security – We aren’t too keen on the idea of our gear being stolen.
  • Ground clearance – If you haven’t noticed, we like driving up gravel roads and other such places cars shouldn’t go.
  • Sturdiness – We needed something that can withstand the rigors of traveling, lots of driving, bumps, scrapes, bruises, and other such mishaps without dropping the drive shaft.

So while that list rules out a few vehicles, it left a lot of room for decisions. As nice as the MINI and the Civic were on gas, they don’t leave a lot of room for 2 people, a cooler, and enough gear to do much of anything. Most all passenger cars were eliminated. But we still had a list of trucks (both small and large), SUVs (small or large?), a van, or an RV. Here were the pros and cons we came up with as we went through the options:

RV

There are three classes of RVs: Class A, Class B, and Class C. Class A RVs are those mack daddy, gigantic RVs that are basically homes on wheels. We’re talking 30-40 feet of living space, plus slides (where the side slides out to increase living area), and 8-15 tons of vehicle to haul around, getting 10-12 miles per gallon, if you’re lucky. And then there’s the price! A decent used one will run mid- to high-five figures, up into the $150,000 range. New run $250,000 and up. Yeah, not exactly the price range we were looking at on top of the fact that these things aren’t the best for the tight roads in some areas that we plan to hit, like the Pacific Coast Highway. This was never a serious (or even a non-serious) consideration.

Class B RVs are the ones that are basically conversion vans. They’d be a decent size for two people and a dog and it was actually a serious consideration for awhile. But on the other hand, we didn’t really want to have to drive our RV everywhere…to the grocery, to the store, to downtown of whatever city we’re in, etc. On the other hand, it would’ve been nice to have a self-contained unit for cooking, sleeping, and using the restroom. Unfortunately, unless you want a fixer-upper, they tend to run a bit more than what we eventually went with. We didn’t really want to spend 1/4 of our time fixing the RV.

Finally, there are the Class C RVs, which are bigger than Class Bs, but smaller than Class As. On the plus side, again, you have a self-contained living area. On the minus side though, you’re again looking at a very large (20-30 feet long, 5-6 ton) vehicle that doesn’t navigate tight spaces or roads very well and they’re pretty far from the price range we were looking at. Ruled out!

Van

One idea that was given to us was to take a van or mini-van and build a bed with storage areas in the back. With that, the sleeping area is handled, but not cooking and bathroom facilities. Basically, it covers the tent part of camping and is a pretty good option. On the other hand, we didn’t see us getting very far into a place like Prescott National Forest with its rutted and pot-holed roads in a van. We aren’t hitting places like that often, but want the flexibility when the chance comes along.

SUV

Once we ruled out the Class B RV and the van options, there was still the SUV option. We’re not talking about a RAV-4 here. We’re talking a Ford Expedition, Chevy Suburban, Chevy Tahoe or similarly sized SUV.

With something like that, we could basically run down our list of needs and check them off. Cargo room? Sufficient with the third row removed. Passenger room? Plenty. Ground clearance? Yup. Sturdiness? With the bigger SUVs, typically the answer is yes (smaller SUVs are built on car frames and sometimes aren’t too keen on the off-road type stuff).

But the failing of the SUV came in the security part. With all of our gear in the back and all of those windows, theft was as simple as a smash-and-grab.

Truck

And therefore, we opted for the full-sized truck. We looked at Tacomas, Tundras, Frontiers, Titans, Silverados, F-150s, and Rams. We looked at 2 door and 4 door versions. In the end, the F-150 with the extended cab beat out the 4 door versions due to the bed length. It gave us everything an SUV would have, at the right price, with the ability to make our gear more secure in the bed with a topper or tonneau cover. It has a longer bed than most of the Tacomas and Tundras, which are still really expensive for used vehicles.

Really the only thing our truck lacks is the 4WD option, but since we plan to stay where the weather is nice and we have the bed loaded with extra weight, it wasn’t a big enough deal to pay the extra $2000 it would have cost us. The best thing about going the truck route was the price. There are so many trucks out there that for $10-12,000, you can have a very nice, lowish mileage used truck. $15,000 really gives you tons of options.

We had lots of choices here and ended up dropping less than $10,000 on our F-150 that needed one $150 part fixed, came with an $800 tonneau cover and tinted windows, had nearly fresh tires on it, and had barely over 100,000 miles. It pulls 15-20 miles per gallon, depending on the type of driving and runs on the cheapest gas. For our needs, it was a no brainer, really.

Topper Vs. Tonneau

How did we decide on the tonneau vs. using a topper? Well, for one, the truck came with it, so it was already decided, but we considered it prior to the purchase. A topper has a similar “smash-and-grab” issue as an SUV, whereas our tonneau cover locks down tight. Of course, it could be crow-barred open, but most thieves aren’t going to go to that much trouble or draw that much attention to themselves.

This decision isn’t necessarily a done deal though. We’ve already discussed that a topper may prove to be a better option in the end because we could put the bikes inside and have a little more storage space (though we really don’t need anymore). We’ll see what the future holds on this. Nothing stops us from trading the tonneau for a topper if we can find a way to make the topper secure enough.

What About Pulling A Camper or Trailer?

A few people asked about pulling a pop-up camper, but this didn’t really fit with what we want to do. Dragging a trailer all around the country doesn’t excite either of us very much, plus it limits our mobility. And neither of us can back a trailer up, though I’m sure we’d learn with some practice.

We’re both good with tent camping and a trailer was just an added expense, an added drag on fuel economy, and an extra thing to break.

Add On A Few Modern Conveniences, Like…

The iPod/iPhone Hookup

Who wants to deal with CDs anymore, especially when we’re spending hours upon hours, weeks upon weeks, in the truck? We go the mp3 route instead. Through the magic of iTunes, we have an infinite number of playlists and can make any new ones at a moment’s notice. In a country mood? Jonesing for some old school rap, blues, classic rock, or metal? This method has you covered. We just plug the iPhone into the truck’s head unit and it reads the songs straight from the iPhone. This is far and away more convenient than dealing with CDs.

Power Inverter

There’s one thing about not having a permanent roof over your head: there’s not always electricity. So we remedied that problem with a 600-watt Xantrex power inverter. For an investment of about $175, including all of the wiring, and about 6-7 hours of installation time over 3 nights (plus the same 6-7 hours of my friend Jason’s time), we have enough juice to run most anything.

Most importantly, anytime we’re traveling, we can have our electric cooler running, keeping things cold. We’ll talk more about the cooler soon, but the basic thing is that we don’t have to deal with ice in this cooler. In the end, we’ll save money by having the inverter, plus it allows us to run laptops while the truck is running or even things like a spice grinder when we get our cook on.

The Best Choice?

So there you go…6 months of thinking and deciding wrapped up in 1500 words or so. Our choice might not be the best for your travels, but thus far, it seems to be the best for the way we travel.