Head for the Hills in a Six-Figure Winnebago on Steroids
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- When Nicole Lawhon and her husband Justin Christofferson prepare to bunk down in their RV at the end of a long drive, they follow a routine. Whether they’re boondocking in the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho, New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains, or the Florida Everglades, they’ll pull a bottle of Grande Cuvée from their wine rack, push a button to open the awning for shade, fire up the outdoor grill, and prepare dinner with knives from their custom-made drawer.
Home for them and their 9-year-old son is a gleaming white, 29-foot-long hell on wheels that rides 12 feet tall on 41-inch tires with military-grade rims and is emblazoned with skulls across the side. Called an EarthRoamer, it’s a sort of Winnebago on steroids—something you’d expect Thanos to emerge from before the final battle of Avengers: Family Vacation.
These extreme RVs have long been popular in Europe as part of “overlanding” vacations—off-the-grid, pavement-agnostic excursions that can last weeks or months. Pass through the Bavarian spa town of Bad Kissingen when it’s hosting Abenteuer & Allrad, an annual confab for overlanding enthusiasts, and you’ll find everything from kitted-out Land Rovers to U-Haul-size Unicat expedition vehicles with full laundry facilities and bunk beds.
Adventures such as this are a relatively new fad in the U.S. But for those with the means to afford a six-figure rig, getting as far away from civilization as possible while still riding in the lap of luxury is becoming a more enticing proposition. “Justin is 41, and I am 46,” says Lawhon, “which is too old for sleeping on the ground in a tent.”
Lawhon, an artist and former librarian, and Christofferson, a retired oil and gas geologist, chose the Colorado-based EarthRoamer because its hand-built, highly customized interiors take their cues from luxury yachts. Closets lined in cedar, heated bathrooms, and a 20,000-Btu air conditioner with thermostat are standard, as are biometric safes and an app-controlled air-ride suspension for leveling out on uneven campsites. The RVs can also come with granite countertops and 4K entertainment systems with Bose surround sound.
This month, EarthRoamer is starting deliveries of its newest design, the LTi. Built on a Ford F-550 platform and powered by a 6.7-liter, turbo-diesel, V-8 motor, it has 750 pound-feet of torque and can hold 95 gallons of fuel and 100 gallons of fresh water. On the roof are four 330-watt solar panels, feeding into an 11,000-watt-hour lithium-ion battery bank.
The LTi starts at $590,000. Once you start piling on such options as Llumar PPF paint protection ($15,000), a FLIR infrared camera system ($6,869), and an additional winch capable of towing 16,500 pounds ($4,000), it’s not difficult to reach a maxed-out price that tops $730,000.
The vehicle’s true innovation, however, is an industry-first carbon-fiber cabin. The material improves the cabin’s rigidity while making it 1,500 pounds lighter than the fiberglass-bodied LTS model that preceded it. Even with the EarthRoamer’s buttery suspension, rigidity matters because driving off-road—whether bounding across the Sonoran Desert or rumbling up Alaska’s trans-Arctic Dalton Highway—subjects the cabin to “earthquake-type forces,” says company founder Bill Swails. Also, the lighter the cabin, the lower its center of gravity, which improves stability and performance.
EarthRoamer’s 80-plus workforce can build about one vehicle every two weeks. Each is constructed to order, and the final quality-control checklist runs to more than 4,000 items. The company’s order book is full until late summer, and repeat customers are common: Of the 13 vehicles it’s building, six are going to existing EarthRoamer owners. “A couple of owners have sent me texts and emails recently commenting that their friends have talked to them about the wisdom of buying an EarthRoamer given the current scare,” said Swails.
Although the overlanding industry doesn’t have a dedicated consumer group the way camping or RV travel do, anecdotal evidence points to rising growth and a more mature audience than for many other rugged pursuits. Scott Brady, publisher of the magazine Overland Journal and chief executive officer of the Expedition Portal website, says the site draws about 1.4 million visitors per month and has a median user age of 42.
Income tells a more interesting story, though. The median for his subscribers is $158,000, but there’s a group making above $1 million. “Typically a demographic for an industry will follow a natural bell curve,” Brady says. “But we actually have more people that are at a million-plus than we have at $250,000 to $500,000,” he says.
The category’s biggest trade show in the U.S., Overland Expo, is also welcoming new fans. The event’s organizers added the Colorado Rockies as a third location this year after its Overland Expo West in Flagstaff, Ariz., drew more than 22,000 attendees and 405 exhibitors last year—a 30% increase from 2018.
On display, assuming that this year’s show proceeds as scheduled, will be vehicles from European expedition suppliers, including the German-made BoXmanufaktur, which grabbed attention last year with a six-wheeled behemoth that looks like a cross between a moving truck and an armored personnel carrier. Its vehicles can come with a queen-size bed, as well as flush-mounted LED light strips for the kitchen, a macerator toilet, and fresh-water storage of up to 700 liters (185 gallons).
Others, such as EarthCruiser USA, based in Bend, Ore., have in-house logistics support to get parts or service overseas. Starting at $400,000, EarthCruiser’s EXP model comes with a Vortec 6-liter gasoline engine and is outfitted with ultracomfortable Scheel-Mann Vairo captain’s chairs.
Springfield, Mo.-based Global Expedition Vehicles also operates in the spare-no-expense market with the likes of the Pangea, which starts at $650,000. The company has lately turned its attention to lower-priced options with an offshoot called Adventure Trucks. These start at about $200,000 while still offering high-tech perks such as electronically dimming skylights similar to the windows on a Boeing 787.
While these kinds of turnkey options abound, the bulk of overlanders have a DIY mentality, seeing as much adventure in creating a vehicle as they do in exploring in it. Devon Turnbull, a New York designer of bespoke sound systems for the likes of fashion designer and artist Virgil Abloh, spent several months in Berlin converting a 1990s-era Mercedes-Benz G-Class Professional into a rolling home. “I’m driving this just-barely there track west through the desert for maybe 40 minutes,” he says of a six-week road trip through Morocco. “I keep hitting these loose sand dunes. And I’m like, ‘I got this.’”
For his next project, Turnbull has become the first taker of a new offering from Global Expedition Vehicles called DIY Kits. They start at $13,000 for an empty cabin that’s delivered flat-packed, like a piece of Ikea furniture—doors and windows are optional. He’ll take that 13 ½-foot body preassembled on a Mitsubishi Fuso chassis and build out the interior himself. Among the amenities he’s including are a wood-burning stove and a mind-blowing stereo system, naturally.
Finding that balance between performance and luxury is an individual decision. Barry Andrews, a co-founder of QSC Audio in California, has assembled a team of specialists to build an all-terrain camper that he hopes to drive from his home on Mexico’s Baja peninsula up to northern Alaska.
“The focus isn’t on luxury in the traditional sense,” he says. “The luxury we are pursuing is to be able to travel down rugged, remote, and technical trails the big rigs can’t fit on, stay a long time, and come back out safely.” He concedes that some of the amenities might actually qualify as luxurious. There will be an espresso machine, a barbecue grill, and “other goodies,” he says, including a “freezer full of ice and a martini shaker.” His motto? “Remote, never primitive.”
Four Names to Know in Overlanding
The Dutch company has become a regular at U.S. overlanding gatherings. It specializes in smartly appointed, steel-framed cabins ranging from 8 feet to 23 feet long, designed to be easily attached to—and removed from—multiple truck platforms. For try-before-you-buy types, this 13-foot cabin is mounted to a Mercedes Atego chassis, the kind of vehicle available to rent through Dutch operator Overland Travel. From €220,000 ($249,000)
Earth Cruiser EXP
While the ability to cross land is a given for an expedition vehicle, EarthCruisers are also designed to fit into shipping containers so they can be used overseas. They’re also built exclusively on Mitsubishi Fuso platforms—one of the most widely available truck types in the world— so spare parts and local service are available, whether you’re in Moab or Mongolia. The interiors are more utilitarian (no TVs), but a pop-up roof makes the need for air conditioning optional. From $399,000
It’s not hyperbole to call the SLRV Commander twice the expedition vehicle of the competition. Forget four-wheel drive: This has eight, as well as four locking differentials. And if there’s not enough living room in this nearly 40-foot-long Australian giant, another available option is a pop-up second story with room to sleep six. From A$900,000 ($597,000)
Global Expedition Vehicles
For those who want the capabilities and comfort of a luxury expedition vehicle but with a footprint suitable for urban environments, there’s the Adventure Truck from Global Expedition Vehicles. Available in two configurations—one with a bed over the cab, the other with a roof rack—it’s small enough to be a weekender, but it also has a 100-gallon diesel tank and can store up to an equal amount of fresh water to stay off-grid for long stretches. From $198,000
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