15 August 2014

Interview with Extreme Boondocking Expert, Bryan Appleby (Part I)

When it comes to truck campers and extreme boondocking, few people have gained more experience than Bryan Appleby. Known on the Internet forums as bka0712, Bryan has been a full-time RV'er since 2009. He grew up on the plains of Kansas before dedicating his working career in the mountains of the West. Bryan worked as both a national park ranger and as a state policeman, the latter from which he is now retired. Bryan is also a published author and an accomplished photographer. He holds licenses in various car racing disciplines including high speed driving instructor. Consulting is his passion now, assisting communities with their open space planning and implementation, mixed in with a dose of driving instruction, writing, and photographic work. 

Mike: Thanks, Bryan, for taking the time to talk. Let's start with the basics. What truck camper do you own and why did you choose that make and model? 

Bryan: I purchased my first RV, a Lance 1191, in 2008. This was after researching and visiting numerous truck camper dealerships and RV forums. This process took me four years. Some of the requirements I was looking for were different than most who were purchasing a truck camper as my intention was to live full-time in mine. I wanted something that would provide me with both room and comfort, which had four season capabilities, had a quality, fit and finish, and had larger capacity reserves, such as water and storage. Essentially a base camp on wheels. 

Mike: What truck do you drive and why did you choose it to haul your Lance camper?

Bryan: My truck is a 2008 Ford F-550 Crew Cab, 4x4, DRW, with an extended frame. The engine is the 6.4L Powerstroke Turbo Diesel. Over the years I had been purchasing my personal and work vehicles from a Denver Ford dealer, Phil Long Ford. I worked with them to order a truck specifically for use with a truck camper and the modifications I had intended to allow me to boondock for extended periods in remote locations. When purchased, the F-550 averaged 10 mpg. With my finished rig, I have averaged approximately 7.1 mpg over the last 60 months. I chose this particular truck for its massive 13,700 lb payload. It has the 4.30 ratio limited slip axle, the heavy duty payload package, an additional transmission cooler, and the snowplow package.

Mike: I don't see a traditional truck camper tie down system for your Lance camper. Is it permanently bolted to the bed of your truck?

Bryan: No. With the service body, a new strategy was developed for attaching my truck camper. I had Unistruts welded to the top of my Knapheide service body. We used some brackets for a bulldozer attached to the Unistruts coupled with spring loaded turnbuckles from a parts bin for Crane Body applications. In five years of use there has been no movement or changes with these brackets.  
 
Bryan's 1965 Shelby Cobra, #75.
Bryan's F-550 with service body, Lance 1191, and trailer.
Closeup of Bryan's heavy duty Ranch Hand winch bumper.

Mike: I'm glad you mentioned your service body. It seems like they're becoming more popular with truck camper owners. Can you tell us more about yours? 

Bryan: My F-550 service body serves me very well for full-timing. Even in the winter months, I use some of the compartments as an auxiliary freezer! I knew from the onset that a service body was in my plans. When I purchased my Ford truck, I applied for Ford’s upfitting rebate available with their fleet sales. I also arranged to have the service body purchased with the truck and used their upfitter to perform the work. This saved me many dollars in sales taxes and time. In fact, the rebate I received almost paid for the entire service body! While many choose to go the route of a custom service body, I didn’t. I ended up ordering one right out of the Knapheide catalog. I used Layton Truck Equipment of Denver, a great company that was more than willing to work with me. The eventual cost was $8,040, including the service body, painting and installation. This was half of what it would have been, going with a custom manufacturer.

Mike: Tell us a little bit about your utility trailer, Bryan. What exactly do you store in it?

Bryan: Behind my F-550, I pull a Haulmark 8x14 Motorcycle trailer. While my intentions were not to pull a trailer, to allow more maneuverability, I soon learned that the platform I had envisioned on the back of my truck and truck camper would not be a workable solution for carrying a BMW GSA motorcycle. My plan was to use this motorcycle as a get around vehicle. While it certainly is a compromise in having a trailer, I have found the positives, in actuality, far outweigh the negatives. For security reasons, I won’t provide details of what I have in my camper and trailer, I will say it's no different than what a person’s garage provides for someone living in a home. I carry many toys, like kayaks, bicycles, skis and things, but it provides more than that. This trailer provides me with the ability to extend my time in remote areas, with additional fuel for the motorcycles, seasonal items, food as well as my main battery bank for one of my two solar power systems. 

Mike: Can you tell us about your motorcycles?

Bryan: Sure! One of the reasons I'm successful full-timing in my truck camper is because of my “get around” vehicle. I chose this vehicle before I made the decision on what truck camper to get. My first motorcycle was a 2008 BMW GS1200R Adventure and I'm now riding a 2012 BMW GS1200R Adventure. Much of my riding is exploring the trails and roads in the areas where I visit and my BMW is set up for this type of riding. When the trails become even more extreme, I use my second motorcycle, a 2006 Honda CRF450X dirt bike. 

Mike: Can you tell us about your battery systems and how they're hooked up to your camper? 

Bryan: With my rig, I have essentially three battery banks: two OEM batteries that service my Ford truck, two 6-volt Lifeline GPL-6CT AGMs (300 amp hours) in my Lance camper, and eight 6-volt Interstate GC2 flooded wet cell batteries (928 amp hours) in my trailer. Redundancy is an important consideration for me. The AGM batteries in my camper are maintained by the solar panels installed on the camper's roof (300 watts total). While they're wired to provide power for both my DC and AC side of my camper, they're currently maintaining the DC side of my truck camper. Similarly, the eight 6-volt wet cell batteries in my trailer are maintained by the solar panels installed on the trailer's roof (920 watts). They, too, are wired to provide power for both the DC and AC side of my camper, for now this battery bank is providing my AC side of my truck camper. My shore power cord is essentially plugged into this bank, full-time, via one of my two Xantrex MSW inverters (2,000 watts and 1,500 watts).

The 6-volt battery bank in Bryan's motorcycle trailer.
View showing the solar arrays on Bryan's camper and trailer.
Bryan's BMW GS1200R Adventure motorcycle.

Mike: Why the mixture of AGM and wet cell batteries in your two battery systems?

Bryan: The reason I made the choices I did on my batteries was easy. For the batteries I had installed in the cabinet of my truck camper, I chose Lifeline AGMs. This was because of their compatibility of being in a living space. The wet cell batteries I chose for my large battery bank in my trailer were Interstate batteries, available virtually anywhere in the United States. With these batteries performing much the same as AGM batteries, and the fact that they were $2,650 less expensive than comparable AGM batteries, it came down to an economic decision. I could do a lot with the $2,650 I saved and still have batteries that can perform similarly for five to seven years. 

Mike: You also have an impressive solar power set-up, Bryan. Can you tell us more about it? 

Bryan: While I received great information and help from others who had solar power systems, I quickly found out that nobody had built or had attempted to build the system I had in mind. Because of I'm a full-timer, I needed an electrical system that was bigger than most. With my camper and trailer I was able to build two separate, independent solar power systems. This two-system approach allows me to leave my trailer in the sun while I park the camper in the shade. I also wanted two solar systems, in case one were to ever go down, I'd have the other. Both systems also have interchangeable hardware in case of a failure. To keep each system “exercised” daily, I have both systems running, one AC (using an inverter) and the other DC. My two systems consist of the following equipment: 
Mike: You're, obviously, a big proponent of solar power. What recommendations would you offer to those who are thinking about going solar? 

Bryan: Have a large checkbook! Okay, perhaps I'm being a little facetious, but it's accurate. For most, solar is not as practical as adding additional batteries and a good charging regiment. For the weekend camper, or an occasional long vacationer, solar is an expensive option. If you're moving every couple of days, your vehicle should keep your batteries topped off. Running an inexpensive generator a couple of hours or less, or stopping in campgrounds with hookups will do the same. However, if you're really set on going to solar, I'm there for you. Developing my solar program has been a life changing event for me here on the road. I don’t move around a lot, but I could and did run a generator every day, the first two years I was full-timing. The two things you need to decide on is how many seasons you are going to need them and what your anticipated demands will be. Do a power survey. The Kill A Watt electricity usage meter is a great aid to help you determine the size of the solar power system and number of batteries you'll need.

Boondocking in the Valley of the Gods, Utah.
Bryan & friends at Teakettle Junction, Death Valley NP.
Boondocking with yours truly in the Vermillion Cliffs NM.

Mike: What modifications have you made to your F-550 truck? 

Bryan: I'll be one of the first to stop and look and crawl around a well set up off-road vehicle, but that's not for me as I prefer to keep my vehicles stock. With this, I did change out my front bumper to a Ranch Hand winch bumper, to provide more protection to the plastic front end of my F-550. Also on this bumper is a Warn 16.5K winch, a Thule Apex 4 Bike Hitch Rack, and a pair of KC HiLiTES Daylighter II off-road lights. The original 19.5 OEM wheels and tires have been swapped to a set of Rickson wheels and a set of Continental 245 profile tires. This change provides me with a greater capacity and safety factor for my travels off-road and many of the unimproved roads I find myself on. I also installed a rear deck and a hitch that I built to accommodate carrying additional spare tires for the truck and trailer as well as a receiver to tow my trailer. This hitch also has a side facing receiver to supplement my Lance steps with an additional removable steel step. In the bed of my truck are two 74 gallon potable water tanks that I use to supplement the potable water tank in my Lance camper. This added capacity gives me a total of 192 gallons of potable water. 

Mike: Have you made any modifications to your F-550's suspension?

Bryan: Yes, the only suspension modification I did was to install a set of air bags. I had air bags on my previous F-350s to assist leveling out the back of these trucks for the tongue weights of my race trailers. I had thought it would be a slam dunk to have on the F-550 as well, so I added them during the first few weeks of owning it. Soon, it became evident that the truck’s spring packs were more than capable of carrying all the extra weight of the service body, aux tanks and camper without a “blush.” What I use the air bags for is for leveling out my truck when I arrive at camp. After previous experience with aux air pumps, I opted out on one and just installed the left and right air inlets in the curb-side cabinet of my service body where my fore and aft and left and right bubble levels are under the skirt of my lance. It makes it convenient to stand in one place and do all of my leveling. I also installed another bubble level in the passenger compartment of my F-550. This level is in an area of the passenger door pocket that can only be seen from the driver’s seat. This makes it easy to better discern a great spot or whether my ramps will make it work.

Stay tuned next Friday for the rest of this fascinating and informative interview. In it, Bryan discusses boondocking and stealth camping, finances, his favorite places to explore, and a few grizzly bear encounters.