How I Made the Ultimate Practical Adventuremobile
Can one truck do everything? I think this one can.
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Seven days and 2,300 miles after leaving our home in Bozeman, Montana, my fiancée, Virginia, I and just arrived in Todos Santos, at the southern end of Mexico’s Baja peninsula for our wedding. The truck we drove down carried us and our three large dogs in comfort, through challenging conditions both on-road and off, as we camped along the way. But it’s not just big, exciting trips that this truck is good at. Let me explain why this Ford Ranger build is so uniquely good that it’s good at everything.
It’s Reasonably Sized
Would we have been more comfortable in a larger truck as we spent days at a time cruising down the highway? Of course. But then we couldn’t have parallel parked it outside our favorite restaurant in Los Angeles (La Poubelle, if you’re curious) when we passed through town to run some last-minute wedding errands.
And those larger dimensions would have made it challenging to squeeze through the tight, rocky passage that guards the entrance to one of our favorite secret beach camping spots in Baja. To accommodate for the longer wheelbases of full-size pickups, you typically have to lift them onto much taller tires than the 33-inch diameter ones we’re able to get away with on the Ranger. Being able to run that reasonable tire size while still gaining all the off-road capability we need is a big reason we were able to achieve 14.7 miles per gallon across the entirety of such a challenging trip. A larger truck modified to be equivalently capable off-road would likely struggle to break 12 mpg, at best.
What about a van? Even the craziest 4×4 Sprinter build you’ve ever seen can’t get as far off-road as a stock Ranger, let alone one with the tires and suspension we’ll detail later. They’re just too long, too low, and lack the equipment necessary to handle anything but an easy dirt road.
It Can Carry Everything We Need
The Ranger’s mid-size dimensions make carrying stuff a challenge. And, because we wanted to travel with the dogs inside the climate-controlled cab with us, we opted for the larger crew cab with the shorter five-foot bed, making packing cargo even harder. That’s a big part of the reason why I mounted a Go Fast Campers Platform to the truck. By doubling the height of the cargo area while giving us total access to all areas of the bed, and doing that with secure, locking panels, it adds an immense amount of space.
Taking advantage of that newfound cargo space wouldn’t be possible without some clever organization. One of the things that’s been tricky to carry on previous trips has been enough water to support both our drinking needs, plus cooking, dish washing, and those three thirsty dogs. Not to mention that it’d be nice to be able to wash ourselves off occasionally during our honeymoon. Looking around for alternatives to cases of water bottles or a big five-gallon jug with a hand pump on the top, I came across Front Runner’s upright water tank. At just 2.6 inches thick, it fits flush to the front of the bed and can hold 10.6 gallons of water—more than enough for a few nights of camping. I used the hardware from the brand’s hose kit, but bought a longer, 10-foot piece of hose so we can run that out the back of the truck. Thanks to the tank’s height, the switchable nozzle gives us equivalent water pressure to our kitchen sink at home. And all that comes with virtually no space penalty within the bed.
We also need to carry stuff like recovery gear, tools, dog gear, and camp amenities in an organized, secure, and clean fashion. I again turned to Front Runner for a surprisingly practical solution. The brand’s Wolf Packs stack securely, so devoting one case to each of the above needs gives me the ability to take advantage of the full height of the GFC. I just run a strap around the stack vertically to lock them all together, than strap the whole thing to a tie down point.
That, plus our large fridge-freezer (I’ll get to that), takes care of all of our essentials, while taking up what’s probably less than a quarter of the total space in the capped bed. So, even with Pelican cases full of makeup and toiletries (this is a wedding, remember) plus seven days of food for the entire family, we ended up with a two-foot deep, three-foot wide, four-foot tall area of spare room in the back. That’s pretty remarkable in a five-foot bed.
It’s Comfortable to Sleep In
One of the reasons we have that extra space is that the GFC Platform incorporates a rooftop tent. Where we’d otherwise need to make room in the back for a large tent and mattress, those things are now built into a six-inch-thick structure mounted on top of the cargo space.
Regular readers will already be familiar with my avowed love affair with ridiculously plush two-person sleeping pads. The two-inch thick foam pad built into the GFC is not one of those. It’s fine if it’s just me, a mummy bag, and a night or two, but I wanted something better for our honeymoon. I’d read reports on forums of people adding air mattresses and foam toppers to their campers, so I started thinking about a solution. The best camping pads work so well because they allow you to tailor the pressure inside an air chamber to deliver a personalized degree of support, combined with the cushion of several inches of foam. The GFC already gave us two inches of foam, so I figured a thin self-inflating pad would add the much-needed support, with a little extra cushion, hopefully deflating to slim enough proportions that we could close it up when we pack down the tent.
It turns out that the Big Agnes Hinman Doublewide pad perfectly matches the 50-inch wide internal dimensions of the GFC. And at 78 inches long, it’s more than long enough for even tall people to sleep on comfortably, while leaving 12 inches of length free at the foot of the camper for you to throw your clothes or some extra sleeping layers. Its 2.5 inches of inflated thickness pair with the GFC’s foam to perfectly replicate the comfort of a luxury pad, and it deflates to only half an inch thick, meaning it also packs inside the closed tent. Paired with a big two-person mummy bag (the Nemo Jazz Duo Luxury), and a few extra blankets, we’re sleeping in this thing as comfortably as we do at home, even with nighttime lows in the teens during some of our trip.
It’s Amazing to Camp Out Of
Trying to put a camper in the back of a mid-size truck is never going to give you enough interior space to do much more than sleep in. But, because the sides and rear of the GFC fully pop-open, it creates a sort of rudimentary cabana. As you’re probably figuring out, rudimentary is not the nature of this build. The camper’s side panels aren’t really large enough to offer shade or protection from the rain, so what’s needed is a big 270 awning, that wraps one side and the rear of the camper.
After experimenting with a cheaper option that broke every time I set it up, and was virtually impossible to pack back into its carrying case after use, I realized that I wanted an awning that was fast to set up and put away, secure in high winds, and made from high-quality components that could stand up to regular use. The Eezi-Awn Bat 270 offers all of that. Setting it up takes maybe ten seconds. Such a large awning obviously isn’t secure in strong winds without additional support, so it includes a clever folding leg system that allows you to stake it down if the wind is blowing. Setting up all four of those takes an additional minute. Putting the entire thing away, even if the legs are deployed, also takes just a single minute. And it’s simple and intuitive enough to use that I’m now able to pack it away in the dark without using a headlamp. All that from a package that weighs just 46 pounds.
The Relentless Fabrication rear bumper includes a swing-out tire and fuel carrier that opens to the passenger side of the bed. So, I went with a driver-side Eezi-Awn that finishes its coverage over the top of that swing out, creating a sort of book end to our shelter. Then, on the back side of that swing-out, my friend Graeme and I fabricated a custom camp table from some of his dad’s old race car parts. So, when we roll up at a camping spot, I just open up the tailgate and GFC panels, pop the table down, open the awning, reach into the fridge for a beer, and we’re in full comfortable hangout mode less than a minute later. Even if it’s raining.
I’ve previously detailed the solar panel setup I installed on the roof of the GFC. That gives us the ability to power a 75-liter, two-compartment fridge-freezer made by Dometic that carries all our perishable human food, and the raw diet I feed our dogs. On the way down, a friend gave us some A5 Wagyu ribeyes, and I’ve been able to keep those reliably frozen at 20 degrees throughout the trip, waiting on a special night to eat them.
It’s Protected from Damage, and Can Get Unstuck
We’re 2,300 miles from home. I’m not sure what we’d do if we broke the truck. But, we were able to off-road into remote areas we’d never visited before on the way here, confident that we’ll make it through whatever challenges we encountered. That’s because I replaced the stock bumpers with stronger steel alternatives made for the Ranger by Relentless Fabrication and added rock sliders under the doors made by Rocky Road Outfitters. Together, those parts wrap the lower parts of the vehicle in protection, guarding against rocks, animal strikes, or even parking lot incidents. The Ranger’s optional FX4 package already provided solid skid plates underneath.
The front bumper also gives me the ability to mount a winch. The Warn VR-Evo 10S fits perfectly between the Ranger’s frame rails, and gives me a controller that I can use with or without a cord for total reliability. In addition to the MaxTrax recovery boards mounted to the camper, the DMOS shovel bolted to the tire carrier, that full-size spare wheel and tire, an ARB recovery kit, and an ARB two-piston air compressor and tire repair kit, we have the ability to get the Ranger out of anything it might get stuck in—and all the tools necessary to deal with other common problems. That may all seem like a lot of stuff, but for me, it’s simply the setup that gives us the ability to responsibly do all of this without relying on help from other people.
And, It’s Still Good to Drive
I chose the Ranger for this build because it offers two major advantages over any of the mid-size truck competition: a higher gross vehicle weight rating and a significantly better engine and transmission combination. I also prefer its independent front suspension arrangement to the live front axle of the Jeep Gladiator.
Still, with only 1,609 pounds of payload to work with, I had to carefully choose the parts I employed. Loading a truck up with more weight than it’s designed to carry risks breaking parts, overheating the engine and transmission, and can exacerbate the risk of having an accident both on-road and off. If I’d opted for any other mid-size truck, I’d have had to forego the camper or the protection parts to safely accommodate our dogs and camping gear. But in the Ranger, we’re able to carry all this stuff safely within the limits of the vehicle’s handling and braking abilities, while tackling obstacles like side slopes without running the risk of a rollover.
Even big, exciting trips like the one we’re on have to involve a lot of highway miles. That’s why I prefer the superior ride quality and handling abilities of independent front suspension, and why the Ranger’s torquier engine and advanced transmission offer such an advantage over the competition. On the way down here we were able to cruise at 85 miles per hour on the highway, and tackle Baja’s dangerous mountain roads with confidence, while passing every other vehicle we encountered.
The tires and suspension help there too. As previously detailed, the unique tire size offered by the BF Goodrich K02 helps retain good ride quality and performance in a tire that remains quiet and safe on pavement. And, the Icon Stage Two suspension system actually improves ride quality and handling over the stock setup, even carrying this much weight. That company is developing a rear spring for the Ranger that will be available in the coming months. As you can see, the rear of our truck does need an additional inch or two of height.
But the best part isn’t how good this truck is on this trip. It’s that, when we get home, I’ll be able to take everything out of the bed and use this same truck to drive loads of cardboard to the town dump, take the dogs on muddy hikes, as a base camp during hunting trips, or any of the other tasks we need a truck for, whether they be mundane or extreme. Everything here adds practicality to all of those uses without comprising the ability of this truck to work as a truck.