It is traditional for anyone building a new camper to post an elaborate “build thread” in the forum of their choice. This allows them to expound, at length, their design goals, philosophical choices, and practical decisions. This also allows the rest of us to chime in with our opinions and help them spend their money. I have held off doing a “build thread” because, while I have some strong opinions, I could not be sure that they would actually work in the real world. Now that Ndeke Luka is actually built and on the road, herewith “The Build Thread.”
Construction and other photos are at: http://www.pbase.com/diplostrat/ndeke_luka
WARNING: Extreme camper geekdom follows.
I had several goals:
- The vehicle was to be a real camper/motor home. That is, to quote Stephen Stewart, a vehicle that you can live in, not beside. (http://www.xor.org.uk/silkroute/equipment/choosevan.htm) That means, at a minimum, a queen size bed, a shower, a toilet, cooking facilities, water supply, heat, and air conditioning and over six feet of headroom.
- The vehicle had to be four season capable. Maybe not Alaska in January, but operational well below freezing and up to at least 100F. That meant serious insulation of the walls, windows, roof, and floor.
- The vehicle was to be as independent as possible, that it, it should NOT need to plug into power, water, or sewage every night. The specific goal was to be able to go three days at full motorhome comfort without shore power/water, sunshine, or engine run. Longer if you conserve water, etc.
- The vehicle had to be world wide capable. That means as few adapters as possible and as small as possible. It does not, however, automatically mean a Toyota or a Mercedes Benz. While those vehicles are, indeed, widely distributed, the models sold in various countries can be very different, so, whatever vehicle you choose, it is likely to an exotic to whatever country it chooses to breakdown in. The bottom line is that whatever you choose, you have to carry your own spares and consumables, special tools, and shop manuals. It also means that you may need someone to make a run to the dealer and thence to DHL.
- The vehicle had to be bad road capable. This does not mean hard core rock crawling or mud bogging, but it does mean tires and suspension set up for hours of driving on dirt roads with ruts, potholes, and washboard. 4×4 with a locking rear differential was a minimum.
- Finally, the vehicle had to be easy and comfortable to drive. That meant good handling and a deluxe interior with sound system, etc.
We started cruising the web about five years ago, looking at options from Sportsmobile, Earthroamer, and considering home brews based on large slide in campers mounted on two ton flat bed trucks. Through it all, we kept coming back to Provan, a small company that had been making a small Class “C” 4×4 camper for about 25 years. (http://www.tigervehicles.com)
We were impressed by the successes of travels like Rick and Kathy Howe (http://www.travelin-tortuga.com/Travelin-Tortuga/index.html) and Rob and Nina Blackwell http://whiteacorn.com/theamericas who were using their Tigers exactly the way we hoped to. We were fortunate in that Provan had just been bought by a new owner, Mark Guild, and Mark was looking for ways to update the product line. This began a four year exchange of ideas that resulted in Ndeke Luka.
So what did we do?
Ndele Luka starts life as a Malayan Tiger from Tiger Adventure vehicles. She is only the second Malayan HT, or long model built. As such she is still very much a hand built prototype. (http://www.tigervehicles.com/tiger-models/malayan-ht/) There are now some fifteen Malayan Tigers on the road.
Suspension: The goal is the smallest possible small increase in overall height while still getting the truck body further from the ground. The bigger goal is an increase in the free wheel travel, to reduce bottoming on bad roads. In my experience the shock of bottoming out the suspension is one of the greatest problems for an off road vehicle – the more free travel, the better as much less shock is transferred to the truck’s frame and body. We went with a Cognito Motorsports leveling kit that is claimed to provide two inches of lift and a 25% increase in free wheel travel. That is enough to run LT295/70R/18 tires which provide additional width, lift, cushioning, and raise the rear axle rating to over 8,000 pounds. (http://cognitomotorsports.com)
In the rear we installed Firestone air springs along with a high performance air compressor package that allows leveling side to side and has take off points for tire inflation. The rear air springs are Firestone RideRites with a heavy duty air compressor, air tank, and a wireless remote. http://riderite.com/vehicle-search?year=2013&model=Silverado%203500%20HD&make=Chevrolet%20GMC The air system is also plumbed to air points on each side to inflate tires or run air tools.
Finally, all four wheels are fitted with Fox Shox 2.0 Performance Series External Reservoir shock absorbers. (http://www.ridefox.com)
Rocker Panel Steps: Denise fell in love with the running boards on our Land Cruiser, so I added AMP Research Power Steps. Marginally more useful than fixed steps as they drop lower, lift higher, and have a light. http://www.amp-research.com/products/truckaccessories/powerstep/
Replacement Fuel Tank: We installed a nominal 60 U.S. gallon replacement tank, which gives a minimum range of over 600 miles. The tank is also plumbed to feed the diesel camper and water heater and a diesel stove, should we choose to install one.
Electrical System: To avoid the problems of propane adapters, refrigerator leveling, and condensation, we went with all electrical appliances and a high performance electrical system. This means that the refrigerator, cooktop, and convection microwave are all electrical. This required:
- A 600 Ampere hour battery bank, consisting of four Lifeline AGM batteries. 6 volts and 300 ampere hours each.
- A 500w solar kit, consisting of 5 100 watt panels with controller and battery monitors. The controller is optimized for Lifeline AGM batteries.
- The Chevrolet 3500 diesel comes with two 125 ampere alternators and a very sophisticated regulation system; so sophisticated, in fact, that addition regulation for the large camper battery bank proved to be unnecessary.
The two magic ingredients in this setup, the ones that have allowed it to achieve such strong battery performance despite massive demands, are:
- Two heavy AWG 1/0 cables that connect each of the starter batteries to the camper battery bank.
- A heavy duty solenoid which is controlled by a “smart” battery combiner. This device monitors each battery and when it determines that either battery is receiving a real charge, as in from the engine or the solar array, it closes the solenoid so that both sets of batteries share the charge. For various reasons, I used a Magnum Smart Battery Combiner (http://magnumenergy.com/smart-battery-combiner-me-sbc/) and a large relay. Doing it over, I would use a Blue Sea Automatic Charge Relay for lower cost and a nice remote. (https://www.bluesea.com/products/7620/ML-ACR_Automatic_Charging_Relay_-_12V_DC_500A)
In the case of the engine alternators, the cables are heavy enough that the alternators “see” the load of the camper batteries and thus do not simply recharge the starter batteries and shut down.
The system works extremely well and can deliver charge rates of over 150A from the alternators to the camper batteries. In bright sun, with a strong demand present (e.g. the induction cooktop or the microwave) the solar array can can deliver more than 30A. Depending on the weather (fan/heat/air conditioner) and menu (cooktop/oven/microwave/charcoal grill), we use between 125Ah and 200Ah overnight. We are usually well over 95% recharged, typically fully recharged, by noon.
Camper Shell: Perhaps the least exciting part of the build, but also the most important. Ndeke Luka, a Malayan Tiger, is constructed entirely of aluminum with two inches of insulation on all sides. The windows are nifty German units with double panes and integrated insect and sun/privacy screens.
— Aluminess front bumper with lockable storage box. This bumper also provides additional clearance for the larger front tires. (http://www.aluminess.com)
— Maxtrax sand ladders – same idea as Marsden mats, but much, much lighter. (At 12,000 pounds, it should be very easy to get Ndeke Luka stuck.) (http://www.maxtrax.com.au) Doing it again, I would try these: http://gotreads.com
— Nature”s Head composting toilet. (http://natureshead.net) Anyone who has ever had to dump a black tank will understand this decision. I replaced the traditional grey water roof vent with one of these: https://360productsnorthamerica.com/site/
— Induction Cooktop – rather than use a propane or diesel stove, we use an induction cooktop. (http://www.trueinduction.com/SingleBurner.aspx) With the caveat that it requires ferrous metal cook wear and that at its very lowest stetting, it pulses the power, it works quite well. We did have one unit fail and it was replaced under warranty. (They are small, so we now carry a spare.) We are still debating whether to install a diesel cooktop but at $175 for the induction cooktop vs. $2,000 for the diesel, we are holding off for a while longer.) Initially, the biggest drawback to the induction cooktop was that we could not make espresso, but we have now found that Bialetti has a new line of stainless steel pots. (http://www.bialetti.com/www.bialetti.com/coffee/stovetop/stainless-pots/venus-c-1_7_21_35.html) Coupled with an aerolatte compact, we are in coffee heaven again. http://www.aerolatte.com/products/heat-froth/aerolatte-compact/
We met this week (7/2/15) when Carolyn and I were at Tiger viewing and beginning to spec our Bengal, it was wonderful to say hello! As we are using the Chev 3500 chassis, I am inquiring as to how well you think your suspension upgrades have done? We anticipate going in many places similar to your travels and would like to have wheel travel and clearance, ride adjustability and larger tires. Any thoughts you would have are appreciated. All the best, safe travels.
The suspension mods have worked beautifully. Will post more detailed comments as soon as I get back home.
Congrats on joining the streak; you will love your Tiger.
The Cognito lift kit appears to perform as expected. As I ordered from overseas, I included the extra lift torsion bar keys. They were not necessary.
I did not order rear lift blocks, preferring to level with air bags alone; I have since added one inch blocks; works much better. Might even have gone with two inch blocks.
Since I ordered the Fox external reservoir shocks, they have added the option of adjustable compression damping and a new, larger shock. As I would like a bit less wallow at low speed (high speed is fine), I will probably upgrade to the new shocks. (http://www.ridefox.com/product.php?make=Chevrolet&model=Silverado%203500HD&t=shocks&year=2015-2011&position=Rear&m=truck&p=33&ref=filter)
Another option is to return the shocks for a rebuild and upgrade. N.B. One nice thing about Fox shocks; once you buy them you will never need new shocks, the factory will rebuild them. Not free and takes time, but a great deal.
Will do a blog update on all of this, one day.
Thanks Fred, greatly appreciate your thoughts and experience!
Just spoke with Trevor about adding the level 4 set up to my order, he is checking to see if they can do it at the same time as adding the firestones, I did ask for the Fox Shox 2.5 Factory replacements with larger shafts and resevoirs, did not know they will rebuild them, that is a good deal even if time consuming. We are also substituting a composting toilet and asking to change over the heat/water to diesel, amongst a 17 item list, we are on a long lead time so working the wish list items with Trevor and Mark.!
Ive been looking for a RV for my family to go on road trips in. I did see your tiger for sale and am very tempted but it is out of my price range for now (due to a recent home purchase). So I’m going back and forth with a regular rv which can be had for 50k. My question to you is, me being a first time rv-er, is that a better approach? My wife and I do prefer being able to drive into the wilderness and camping out instead of being stuck in campgrounds. Should I wait and save for something like yours? I read all the stuff you listed on your Malayan. How much did you spent modifying all that from stock?
The shortest answer is that if I could have found a better vehicle than our Tiger, I would have bought it.
A lot depends on how long you want to travel – Weekend? Month? Year? Where do you want to travel – US, South America, ’round the world? What kind of roads – Major highways, dirt roads, serious rocks and mud? Where do you want to stay – campground with hookups or out in the weeds? And for how long? Who is going and what is their tolerance for hot/cold, mud/dust, etc.?
Beloved Spouse did most of our traveling in the third world, on dirty roads, and got very hot, cold, and wet. If can tolerate some of this, consider a 4×4 SUV like the Suburban/Expedition with a bed platform in the back and/or a roof top tent. (I wish we had discovered rooftop tents years ago.) Another variation on this theme is a 4×4 Big Three US pickup truck with a topper of some sort. Any variation of this theme could take you a long way.
The next step might be a 4×4 van.
If you are handy, you might be able to work with a truck camper or some form of already made RV, but just be aware that most of these are built strictly to price and tend to fall apart on dirt roads.
Sooooooo. While I would urge you to buy a Tiger or a similar product – you will be much more comfortable – don’t wait to travel. Any trip taken now in a “lesser” vehicle is better than any trip not taken because you don’t have the perfect vehicle.
As to cost, I have always been too scared to total it, but I would guess that I am well on the high side of $10,000, certainly with labor.