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Muscle R.V.'s: Off the Road Again

Jamie Rector for The New York Times

ROUGHING IT The Tiger CX is on a Silverado chassis but has R.V. amenities.

Published: June 24, 2005

WHEN most people buy an R.V., they look for luxuries like full-size appliances, flat-screen televisions and slide-out panels that vastly increase living space. Randy Hansen was looking for something different. "I wanted to tow," he said, "and have four-wheel drive. I wanted to get far enough into the backcountry that I can unload an A.T.V. and go exploring or hiking and be able to stay."

So when Mr. Hansen, a 50-year-old Phoenix resident, came across something called the Earthroamer during a Web search, it caught his attention. "I said, what the hell's an Earthroamer?"

Good question. The vehicle, built by a small Colorado company, is a rugged motorhome with factory four-wheel drive. Designed to take its owner in comfort from the depths of Baja to the wilds of Alaska and along extreme outback routes like the White Rim Trail in Utah, the Earthroamer is a no-holds-barred off-road machine. With a customized camper mounted directly to a pickup frame, it is built for people who want to experience life off-road but take many of the comforts of home along with them.

On Mr. Hansen's $200,000 truck, the amenities include two 50-gallon water tanks, a standup shower and a European-style cassette toilet. Unlike most R.V.'s, which rely on propane, the Earthroamer taps into its 60 gallons of diesel fuel for cooking, cabin heat and hot water. While driving, hot water is continually supplied through a direct line from the truck's radiator. Solar-charged batteries can power the satellite dish, the hyperefficient Norcold refrigerator and the Sharp air-conditioner for several days, even weeks, without a generator.

Machines like the Earthroamer occupy a tiny niche in America's total recreational-vehicle market of 370,000 annual unit sales. Off-road R.V.'s are made by just a handful of companies, including Tiger Motorhomes, based in South Carolina. And many of the makers have struggled to stay in business: Revcon Motorcoach in Orange County, Calif., has suspended production of its large six-wheeled Trailblazer, while Chinook, a maker of van-based R.V.'s in Yakima, Wash., recently suspended production of its Baja model, with aftermarket four-wheel drive. Last year, Xplorer Motorhomes was put up for sale. It quickly found a buyer, however, and the new owner, Bob Helvie, who has based the company in Indiana, said he would be happy to build anyone a custom Xcursion model camper based on a Dodge or Ford four-wheel-drive pickup.

Earthroamer's chief operating officer, Michelle Connolly, would not say how many vehicles the company had sold. Tiger Motorhomes said it produced fewer than a hundred four-wheel-drive CX models annually. Dave Rowe, Tiger's president, said that sales were up over last year, thanks partly to a revamped Web site and a new Web-based Tiger owners group. "Our dealer at the moment," he said, "is the Internet."

Although he is enamored of his own off-road R.V., John Rhetts, 62, of Bend, Ore., said that being an early adopter is not always easy. He owns just the fourth Earthroamer built. On a drive through the Steen Mountains of Oregon, both Mr. Rhetts's rear wheels failed because of a manufacturing flaw in the rims, leaving him stranded in a remote fishing village. The next day, he said, Earthroamer's president, Bill Swails, arrived from Colorado with five brand-new wheels and tires. A faulty furnace also had to be replaced by the manufacturer. And the diesel stove had problems. Lately, Mr. Rhetts said, the Ford diesel engine has required repairs, all covered by the warranty.

But Mr. Rhetts still says his Earthroamer is a


vehicle. "We've had a series of problems," he said. "But they've stood behind us all the way."

Mr. Rhetts recounts this story about a recent trip to the tip of Baja California: "We were in San Juanico and ran into a group of Baja off-road racers. They noticed the vehicle and took off one morning. We decided to follow them and drove into the spine of the mountains in four-wheel low. When we pulled into Loreto, one of the racers said, 'You can't possibly have brought that rig through there.' He bought us dinner."

Bouncing along a rugged road in California's Ortega mountain backcountry, Mr. Hansen's Earthroamer rolled easily along a route that would be all but inaccessible to most R.V.'s. Like many Americans, his first move toward a four-wheel-drive motorhome was to put a slide-in camper into the back of a full-size pickup. Such campers generally have a limited walking area and significantly raise a vehicle's center of gravity, making it more prone to tipping. Besides, removing the slide-in can be a chore. "You think, 'Well, I can use the truck to drive to work and put the camper in when I want to go somewhere,' " he said. "With the amount of work you have to do to load and unload a teetery, tippery camper onto four jacks, over four years I found I never took it off."

Mike Brodey, 67, of Woodland Hills, Calif., spent around $80,000 for a Tiger CX motorhome after pricing an Earthroamer. "My original premise," he said, "was something with four-wheel drive that I could take out in the boonies for my photography. Places like the Owens Valley, where you have lots of snow, or going off on rough, dirt or slightly improved roads." Most back roads in the Owens Valley, which runs along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevadas, are not suitable for conventional R.V.'s.

Built on a Chevrolet Silverado 2500 chassis, the Tiger is lighter than the Earthroamer and comes in three lengths - 19, 21 and 24 feet. It can be bought with a gasoline or a diesel engine. Equipped with propane appliances, a standard R.V. sewage connection, air-conditioning, an internal generator, ample cabinets, a stand up shower and easy sleeping for four, the Tiger is a much more traditionally equipped Class C vehicle. (Class C means that it is built on a truck chassis with a cab section.) It is also available with solar panels and additional batteries.

Now, in addition to visiting the Owens Valley, Mr. Brodey has taken the camper through Yosemite, over the Tioga Pass and recently towed his 24-foot motorboat to the San Joaquin Delta, all in California. The only problem thus far, he said, has been a squeaky bathroom door.

Indeed, Mr. Brodey liked his Tiger so much that he founded the user group on the Web, which is now up to 80 members. Robert Moore, 46, of Roan Mountain, Tenn., a kayaker and avid hiker who has covered more than 1,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail, is one of them. "I always looked down at R.V.'ers because they pull up to a state or national park and they pull out their little lights, sit and drink and that's all they do," he said. "I call them slab sitters."

But in 2004, he took delivery of a 19-foot Tiger, which he planned to use as a kind of roving base camp for hiking expeditions. "We do a three-day hike on the Appalachian Trail and come back," he said, "and what's waiting at the trailhead? The Tiger. As a backpacker, what I need for life, I can carry on my back with 32 pounds. I look at the Tiger and think, my God, that's a mansion. Instant shower, overhead sleeper and a refrigerator? Give me my Mountain Dew."

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Photo: Driving across the Pudding River in Oregon, 1932
Photo: Driving across the Pudding River in Oregon, 1932