US vs S America Vehicle Design Requirements

After 12 months in South America, we shipped the Casa back to Jacksonville, FL, and at the time this is being written, we have been on the road for three months in the US. Things are different here.

Overlanding in the US is not the same as overlanding in South America. Actually I’m not sure that overlanding as a word should be used for travels in the US. Overlanding may be applicable for Alaska, I don’t know as we haven’t gotten there yet, but in the lower 48, traveling in a camper is just easy. The infrastructure – roads, campgrounds, gas stations, propane – is exquisite and it accomodates any type of camper/camping: from car camping, to the Casa, to the brobdingnagian vehicles that dominate US campgrounds and RV parks.

Large US 5th wheeler. For comparison, the truck towing is larger than our truck...
Large US 5th wheeler. For comparison, the truck, which is towing, is larger than our truck…
The inside of a modern 5th wheel trailer (not the Casa...)
The inside of a modern 5th wheel trailer (not the Casa…)

I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with the US campers – to be fair a number of people we have run across live in them full time – but these kind of vehicles are only possible in the US; the infrastructure in South America, even in the richer parts of Argentina and Chile, would simply not accomodate a vehicle of this size, nor the amenities that these vehicles require.

For fun, let me run through some of the differences between a vehicle suited for S America vs one suited for the US.

First, let’s talk about size. One of our design requirements / philosophies was to keep our vehicle “as small as possible” while still meeting our needs. Good call. I cannot remember a time during our year when I wished for a larger vehicle, I do, however, remember a few times when I wished it were a foot or two shorter, typically the wishes for a shorter vehicle occurred during high-stress navigation through over-crowded streets, streets that were too narrow to start out with. Here’s a few pics to show why size matters:

Entrance to a Bolivian "parking garage"
Entrance to a Bolivian “parking garage”
The inside of said "parking garage"
The inside of said “parking garage”
Street in Cusco, Peru. The car in the street would fit in the glove compartment of our truck.
Street in Cusco, Peru. The car in the street would fit in the glove compartment of our truck. We had to fold in our outside mirrors in order to make it down the street.
Parked outside a friendly hotel, not much room to spare.
Parked outside a friendly hotel, not much room to spare.

In South America, the size of your vehicle is extremely important, in particular its length and height, and we are very pleased with the choices we made. In the US, size really doesn’t matter – I’m not sure you can buy a camper that is too big.

The next design parameter is ruggedness. The roads in South America can be atrocious, and even when they are not, you will spend long periods of time – 6 hours a day, for days at a time – driving on dirt roads that are heavily washboarded. Everything shakes and vibrates, no matter how you try to match your speed to the road – and “stuff” is going to break. As an example, we had a solid brass water pipe fitting mounted in such a way that it gently touched a wood screw – within six weeks of dirt roads, the solid brass fitting had “rubbed” off half of its thickness, and we sprung a water leak.

Carretera Austral, southern Chile
Carretera Austral, southern Chile
Ruta 40, somewhere in Patagonia, Argentina. Note the size of the rocks on the road.
Ruta 40, somewhere in Patagonia, Argentina. Note the size of the rocks on the road.
Beautiful, yes...
Beautiful, yes…
But still washboarded dirt road...
But still washboarded dirt road…

In addition to the relentless shaking, there is also a constant spray of rocks hitting the underside of your vehicle. Btw, we added mudflaps to our truck – it did not come with it – some of the best money we ever spent.

Kudos to GMC for building a truck that handled any road, no matter how bad, or at what altitude. Semi-kudos to Outfitter for building a good truck camper – we had numerous issues with our Outfitter, but few owners will use their Outfitters as hard as we did. More on this on a separate post. In South America, ruggedness is a must, and I shudder to think of what would happen to some of the humongous, and complicated, US vehicles if they attempted the dirt roads of the Carretera Austral.

In the US, who cares? (somewhat facetiously). US roads are so good you can haul  / tow almost anything and not worry about it breaking.

Speaking of ruggedness, do you need 4WD? And I’m talking about those of us who drive on semi-regular roads, not the ones who seek the offroading experience. In the US, absolutely not: I have yet to see a road that our beloved 1972, rear wheel drive, VW camper, with 66 hp, couldn’t handle.

In South America, you do not need 4WD, but at least an argument can be made for it. We had one (1) day in Paraguay, where 4WD was essential: it had rained the previous day and the red-clay road had the consistency of warm butter. I will categorically state that no 2WD drive vehicle could have made it down the 24 km road we were on. However, I will also admit that if we had waited a day or two until the road dried out, any vehicle would have been able to drive this particular road.

Brand new, agressive tread tires. But, after a day or two of rain on red clay roads in Paraguay, the tires are coated with 2" of mud... (Paraguay)
Brand new, agressive tread tires. But, after a day or two of rain on red clay roads in Paraguay, the tires are coated with 2″ of mud… (Paraguay)
One use of 4WD: rescuing a German overland vehicle from a very wet and boggy spot (Peru)
One use of 4WD: rescuing a German overland vehicle from a very wet and boggy spot (Peru)
Another use of 4WD: helping a (inebriated) local get off the side of a dirt road (Argentina)
Another use of 4WD: helping a (inebriated) local get off the side of a dirt road (Argentina)
Look like a rugged campsite, but it's not. Out VW camper would have made it just fine.
Look like a campsite which would require 4WD, but it’s not. Our VW camper would have made it just fine.

An issue related to ruggedness, but which doesn’t get much press, is dust. “The man” when it comes to overland vehicle design, Stephen Stewart, talks about dust, but few others do. One of the weaknesses of the redneck overland vehicle, ergo the truck camper, is that the camper door is at the rear. And when you are driving on dirt roads for hours, even days, at a time, the rear door will suck dust into the camper, no matter how much you try and dust-proof. Every day we would have a slight coating of dust on all surfaces inside the camper. And this was after a blitzkrieg campaign to seal each conceivably entry point into the camper with duct tape.

On roads like these, it's going to be dusty...
On roads like these, it’s going to be dusty…
This not fog, this is dust blowing across the road / valley
This is not fog, this is dust blowing across the road / valley

In the US, who cares about dust? No one is going to be driving on dirt roads for days on end, so why worry about dust seals?

Gas versus Diesel? I had my mind set on buying a diesel truck, but after doing some research, we decided to buy a gas truck as we were not sure we would be able to buy ultra-low sulfur diesel throughout South America. Good call, Our friends Axel and Yanni had brought a brand new diesel powered Nissan to S America. Due to, most likely, a combination of low quality diesel and high altitude, their truck went into “limp mode” in the middle of nowhere Bolivia, and they had to get it towed 120 miles to the nearest Nissan dealer.

Kudos, again, to GMC for building a great truck. We drove from sea level to 4,800 m, 15,750 feet; from 20 F to 110 F, yet nothing bothered the truck, it just ran. So in South America, the lesson is: either get an older diesel engine that can handle dirty diesel, or get a gas powered vehicle.

In the US, who cares about fuel types? there are gas stations all over the place, and all of them carry clean gas, and ultra-clean diesel.

Speaking of all over the place, let me mention hookups. We spent a great deal of time thinking about (ok, obsessing about) how much water and propane to carry, how to manage black and gray water, and how to design a vehicle where we would be able to live comfortably for a week totally totally off-line. Thus, the Casa has a cassette toilet, carries 60 gallons of fresh water, has solar panels, has an electric, as opposed to propane, fridge, and carries dual propane tanks. For South America: good calls.

Never during our travels did we see a sewer hookup: thank goodness for the cassette toilet; anyone who designs an overland vehicle without one is deranged. (For gray water – the water from doing dishes and showers – we would release it at the side of a road).

And it was rare, very rare, that any campsite provided electricity, much less the 50A that the large US campers require. As a matter of fact, we only plugged in the Casa once during our twelve months in South America. So the solar panels, and the four (4) batteries we carry in the Casa, where well worth their expense and weight.

One of the nicest campgrounds in S America (Argentina), no hookups...
One of the nicest campgrounds in S America (Argentina), no hookups…
Camping on Argentinian Navy land, overlooking Brazil. No hookups...
Camping on Argentinian Navy land, overlooking Brazil. No hookups…
"Camping" at a gas station in Bolivia. No hookups...
“Camping” at a gas station in Bolivia. No hookups…
Camping outside a B&B in Chile. No hookups...
Camping behind a gas station in Chile. No hookups…
Camping behind a gas station on Chile. No hookups...
Camping outside a B&B in Chile. No hookups…

In the US: who cares about fresh water, cassette toilets, or solar panels?, we’ve got hookups! And they are all over the place. Even the state parks have equipped their campsites with water, electricity, and sewer. And most private campsite add cable TV and wifi to the list.

Which brings me to my final, for now, issue: propane. Again, we spent a fair amount of time worrying about propane and whether we would be able to get it in South America. Our worries drove the design choices we made: electric fridge, powered by the solar panels and batteries, and to carry dual propane tanks. For the first few months of our travels, propane was absolutely no issue – easy to find and purchase – and we were somewhat embarrassed by how worried we had been. But then we came to southern Patagonia – it took us six (6) weeks to find a town where they sold propane. Luckily, or by design, this was not an issue for us, given our propane worries during the design, we had plenty of margin.

Finally found a "Planta de Gas" that is willing to fill our tanks (Rio Gallegos, Argentina)
Finally found a “Planta de Gas” that is willing to fill our tanks (Rio Gallegos, Argentina)
Success!
Success!

In the US, who cares about propane? Most cities, every KOA campground, and the majority of private campgrounds have propane filling stations. You probably don’t need more than a 6 hour capacity, much less 6 weeks.

Despite all of the words above, and certainly despite all that is written on the internet, driving around South America can be a fantastic experience, irrespective of the type of vehicle you choose. That doesn’t mean that some vehicles aren’t more suited than others…

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3 thoughts on “US vs S America Vehicle Design Requirements

  1. There is a big misconception about dust. You can never make your rear ‘dustproof’. The only thing to do is have sufficient air flow in at the front of your vehicle/camper so there is no dustsucking vacuum! It works!

    • Peter – totally agree. For a while, I was thinking about designing an air scoop that would sit on top of the camper and direct an air curtain behind the camper to avoid the vacuum. Who knows, may be one of these days… Henrik

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