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Thread: Planning a truck build, lots of questions.

  1. #1

    Default Planning a truck build, lots of questions.

    I'm in the very early planning stages for a truck build. I'd like something which I can live and work (computer job) in for 3/4 years, while travelling through Africa, Asia, Russia and possibly The Americas. Unfortunately I have very little experience with trucks, so hoping for some feedback on my plans.

    I'd like something which can get off the beaten path, with good off-road capability, fully self sufficient (just add diesel), and comfortable for long term travel. I realise a truck will always be somewhat limited to where it can go, and am willing to forgo a little go anywhere ability for increased live-ability and self-sustainability.

    The truck would need enough space for living, working (large table/desk, plus a safe place to store computers), supplies, motorbike, tools and spares. But also small enough for driving off-road and through small villages and mountain passes.

    With all that in mind, I'm currently planning a similar internal layout to the Action Mobil 4500HB (PDF), with a 1m long full height garage area added behind, two spare tyres on the back wall and a compact cab. This would be a little under 8m long. However storage is a little cramped (the motorbike takes up most of the garage) and I'm not sure about the high bed.

    The base truck would be a modern, Euro 3 MAN TGM or possibly Iveco, as they're plentiful (at least in Europe), well priced and have decent off-road performance without sacrificing too much on-road. A wheelbase of 4-4.3m and a cutout to maintain a good departure angle.

    How does this sound? These are the main things I've been struggling with:

    • Maximum practical length? Aiming for under 8m as that's what I've heard is the longest size that's still small enough to not be too limiting, but fitting everything in is proving tricky. Would 8.5 or even 9m be workable, or is 8m the limit?

    • Maximum practical height? Aiming for 3.5m, but with big tyres, subframe and a comfortable interior height (I'm 6') this might not be possible. How high is too high?

    • Most Unicats/Action Mobils/etc. seem to have extended cabs (even the smaller ones only designed for 2 people). Is there a reason they don't use compact cabs? I'd be giving up 50cm+ length in the cabin for the extended cab, which seems like a poor trade off.

    • 4x4 or 6x6? I'm totally stuck on this, as a 4x4 would be lighter and simpler, but the 6x6 has better flotation/traction, a shorter turning circle and better weight distribution (the water tanks, bike, spare tyres and tools/spares would all be over/behind the rear axle). Given I'd like to get off the beaten path, would the (presumably?) better off-road capability of the 6x6 be worthwhile?

    • Most builds use MAN or Mercedes, but I've also seen a few using Iveco, Volvo and Scania. Given where I'm going the chances of finding even a Mercedes dealer are pretty slim, is there really much reason to pick one over the others?

    • Would it be better to have a large dinette and high bed, with full height storage behind. Or to have a shorter dinette, with a fixed bed over the garage? The high bed is a little shorter, but the full height garage would have poor weight distribution (things would need to be stacked high up).

    • How much power? Something that can cruise at 65mph and cope with driving through thick mud and up steep climbs, but still be relatively fuel efficient. I'm guessing around 300hp should be plenty?

    • Internal or external motorbike storage? I figured internal would be more secure and protected from the elements, but then this eats up garage space. Is it worth it?

    • Any other advice? I'm pretty new to the world of big trucks, so have probably missed something...


    Thanks for getting this far and sorry for the wall of text. Any help is much appreciated.

  2. #2
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    Quote Originally Posted by Amphibious Antelope View Post
    I'm in the very early planning stages for a truck build. I'd like something which I can live and work (computer job) in for 3/4 years, while travelling through Africa, Asia, Russia and possibly The Americas. Unfortunately I have very little experience with trucks, so hoping for some feedback on my plans.

    I'd like something which can get off the beaten path, with good off-road capability, fully self sufficient (just add diesel), and comfortable for long term travel. I realise a truck will always be somewhat limited to where it can go, and am willing to forgo a little go anywhere ability for increased live-ability and self-sustainability.

    The truck would need enough space for living, working (large table/desk, plus a safe place to store computers), supplies, motorbike, tools and spares. But also small enough for driving off-road and through small villages and mountain passes.

    With all that in mind, I'm currently planning a similar internal layout to the Action Mobil 4500HB (PDF), with a 1m long full height garage area added behind, two spare tyres on the back wall and a compact cab. This would be a little under 8m long. However storage is a little cramped (the motorbike takes up most of the garage) and I'm not sure about the high bed.

    The base truck would be a modern, Euro 3 MAN TGM or possibly Iveco, as they're plentiful (at least in Europe), well priced and have decent off-road performance without sacrificing too much on-road. A wheelbase of 4-4.3m and a cutout to maintain a good departure angle.

    How does this sound? These are the main things I've been struggling with:

    • Maximum practical length? Aiming for under 8m as that's what I've heard is the longest size that's still small enough to not be too limiting, but fitting everything in is proving tricky. Would 8.5 or even 9m be workable, or is 8m the limit?

    • Maximum practical height? Aiming for 3.5m, but with big tyres, subframe and a comfortable interior height (I'm 6') this might not be possible. How high is too high?

    • Most Unicats/Action Mobils/etc. seem to have extended cabs (even the smaller ones only designed for 2 people). Is there a reason they don't use compact cabs? I'd be giving up 50cm+ length in the cabin for the extended cab, which seems like a poor trade off.

    • 4x4 or 6x6? I'm totally stuck on this, as a 4x4 would be lighter and simpler, but the 6x6 has better flotation/traction, a shorter turning circle and better weight distribution (the water tanks, bike, spare tyres and tools/spares would all be over/behind the rear axle). Given I'd like to get off the beaten path, would the (presumably?) better off-road capability of the 6x6 be worthwhile?

    • Most builds use MAN or Mercedes, but I've also seen a few using Iveco, Volvo and Scania. Given where I'm going the chances of finding even a Mercedes dealer are pretty slim, is there really much reason to pick one over the others?

    • Would it be better to have a large dinette and high bed, with full height storage behind. Or to have a shorter dinette, with a fixed bed over the garage? The high bed is a little shorter, but the full height garage would have poor weight distribution (things would need to be stacked high up).

    • How much power? Something that can cruise at 65mph and cope with driving through thick mud and up steep climbs, but still be relatively fuel efficient. I'm guessing around 300hp should be plenty?

    • Internal or external motorbike storage? I figured internal would be more secure and protected from the elements, but then this eats up garage space. Is it worth it?

    • Any other advice? I'm pretty new to the world of big trucks, so have probably missed something...


    Thanks for getting this far and sorry for the wall of text. Any help is much appreciated.
    I don't want to seem overly critical to a new guy (welcome to the Forum), but....

    1) off the grid how are you going to communicate your work? Satellite coms are tiny bandwidth and/or REALLY expensive
    2)8m IS a practical length limit. I have seen ~11m 6x6 MANs have to make multiple point turns on otherwise good dirt roads with hairpin turns
    2.5) I wish I didn't have a cutout on the back. I could store and access a lot more crap more easily (tired of things falling on my head) with a squared of back. Certainly if you do get a cutout have side access doors, not a back hinged door.
    3) You will be at 3.6 or 3.7m or higher depending on tire size, don't forget about 5-100cm for solar panels and vents. My U500 is at 3.57 with 395s, minimum tires for a big heavy truck
    4) 6x6 SOUNDS better, but at a cost of about 3 miles per US gal (6 vs 9 on highway), is much heavier and turns with more difficulty, not less. I've seen it with mine own eyes several times.
    5) There are more MB truck dealers in more countries than anything else, the others are more spotty in worldwide dealers. None of the big Euro trucks have any presence in N.America, the N.American ones only have presence in N.America, Australia and Parts (not all) of Latin America
    6) cruise at 65mph? where can you do that? Just N.America and a few bits of Australia. Not Europe for sure - the big truck speed limit is 80kph, everyone goes 89 (53-54 mph) but no faster.
    7) Don't forget to get a CDL (commercial drivers' licence), RV drivers are only exempt in N. America.
    8) read this: http://www.silkroute.org.uk/equipment/choosevan.htm
    9) Look into EXCAP and KrugXP for chassis and camper respectively unless money is absolutely no object - in which case Unicat and Actionmobil are great. And even if you are infinitely rich where are you going to find a US registerable chassis that is any good for this sort of thing (EXCAP is perfect because his chassis are completely renewed, virtually new, but all 92 or earlier and therefore registerable ANYWHERE - except he's booked out to March 2020!!)? Where are you from (where is the truck going to be licenced, where will it sit when not travelling)?
    10) You are right, you want something Euro 3 or earlier, even non electronic; or if you get N.American chassis something pre-EGR (except the ideal N.American big truck chassis for a big camper doesn't really exist - everything has an enormous hood/bonnet)
    Last edited by charlieaarons; 11-26-2017 at 03:15 AM.
    Unimog U500 with Unicat camper; diesel BMW X5 35d, diesel BJ40 Landcruiser and diesel M37

  3. #3
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    Default Free Advice

    Quote Originally Posted by charlieaarons View Post
    ...
    1) off the grid how are you going to communicate your work? Satellite coms are tiny bandwidth and/or REALLY expensive
    ...
    8) read this: http://www.silkroute.org.uk/equipment/choosevan.htm
    ...
    Free advice is said to be worth what you pay for it, but this is all good advice, especially the two points that I have quoted.

    --
    DiploStrat

    Web: http://diplostrat.org

    Certified Expo Poseur - Lives on Paved Road

  4. #4
    Thanks for replying guys, don't worry about being critical, I'd rather be told I'm about to do something dumb than find out the hard way...

    Quote Originally Posted by charlieaarons View Post
    1) off the grid how are you going to communicate your work? Satellite coms are tiny bandwidth and/or REALLY expensive
    There are times when I'd need a constant internet connection, but also times when I can go 1+ months without it. So the plan is to organise the route around my work, so satellite internet won't be necessary. Bit of a pain, but I can't really afford to take years off work.

    Quote Originally Posted by charlieaarons View Post
    2)8m IS a practical length limit. I have seen ~11m 6x6 MANs have to make multiple point turns on otherwise good dirt roads with hairpin turns
    Yes, I think your right. Would have been nice to have more space, but I definitely don't want a huge truck which can't fit anywhere.

    Quote Originally Posted by charlieaarons View Post
    2.5) I wish I didn't have a cutout on the back. I could store and access a lot more crap more easily (tired of things falling on my head) with a squared of back. Certainly if you do get a cutout have side access doors, not a back hinged door.
    I was under the impression a cutout would allow for a shorter wheel base (without destroying the departure angle), which would allow a longer body without reducing maneuverability too much? But your saying a longer wheelbase and no cutout would be better?

    Quote Originally Posted by charlieaarons View Post
    3) You will be at 3.6 or 3.7m or higher depending on tire size, don't forget about 5-100cm for solar panels and vents. My U500 is at 3.57 with 395s, minimum tires for a big heavy truck
    This is what I feared. I guess just as low as possible.

    Quote Originally Posted by charlieaarons View Post
    4) 6x6 SOUNDS better, but at a cost of about 3 miles per US gal (6 vs 9 on highway), is much heavier and turns with more difficulty, not less. I've seen it with mine own eyes several times.
    Yes I think your probably right. My inner 10 year old wants a 6x6, but realistically a 4x4 is probably a better choice.

    Quote Originally Posted by charlieaarons View Post
    5) There are more MB truck dealers in more countries than anything else, the others are more spotty in worldwide dealers. None of the big Euro trucks have any presence in N.America, the N.American ones only have presence in N.America, Australia and Parts (not all) of Latin America
    I'm in the UK, so cabover Mercedes/MANs/etc. are very common. Mercedes are expensive though, but I guess it's worth it to pay a little more upfront if getting parts/repairs is easier?

    Quote Originally Posted by charlieaarons View Post
    6) cruise at 65mph? where can you do that? Just N.America and a few bits of Australia. Not Europe for sure - the big truck speed limit is 80kph, everyone goes 89 (53-54 mph) but no faster.
    Yes that is maybe a little optimistic. What I really want is something that can keep up with traffic and not feel underpowered.

    Quote Originally Posted by charlieaarons View Post
    I've read that about 3 times! Doesn't hurt to read it again though. He concludes that a 7.5t truck with a GFP box is ideal. Unfortunately finding something like that, which can take the weight, has comfortable living/storage space, good off-road capability and isn't super expensive and unique (e.g. Oberaigner 6x6) seems impossible. Hence looking at larger trucks.

    Quote Originally Posted by charlieaarons View Post
    9) Look into EXCAP and KrugXP for chassis and camper respectively unless money is absolutely no object - in which case Unicat and Actionmobil are great. And even if you are infinitely rich where are you going to find a US registerable chassis that is any good for this sort of thing (EXCAP is perfect because his chassis are completely renewed, virtually new, but all 92 or earlier and therefore registerable ANYWHERE - except he's booked out to March 2020!!)? Where are you from (where is the truck going to be licenced, where will it sit when not travelling)?
    I'm definitely not rich, only linked to Action Mobil to show the layout, I can't afford one. Current plan is either for Ormocar to build the cabin shell, then to do the fitout myself, or to have Ormocar/KrugXP build the whole truck, budget depending.

    Quote Originally Posted by charlieaarons View Post
    10) You are right, you want something Euro 3 or earlier, even non electronic; or if you get N.American chassis something pre-EGR (except the ideal N.American big truck chassis for a big camper doesn't really exist - everything has an enormous hood/bonnet)
    We're very lucky in Europe, cabover trucks are everywhere!
    Last edited by Amphibious Antelope; 11-26-2017 at 10:40 AM.

  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by Amphibious Antelope View Post
    I was under the impression a cutout would allow for a shorter wheel base (without destroying the departure angle), which would allow a longer body without reducing maneuverability too much? But your saying a longer wheelbase and no cutout would be better?
    A longer wheelbase allows more space between wheels for big fuel tanks, gray water tank, possible generator. For sure don't go over 4.5m - 3.9 to 4.2 would be optimal. Too long of course affects turning radius and breakover angle but not ground clearance per se.
    And in your searching you might find a MAN with CTIS. If so it is very desirable but make sure it works perfectly in a used vehicle (central tyre inflation system). Although it is easy to disable if not working right and sometimes it is just a leaky seal; but sometimes hard to track down.
    Just a "heads up" piece of advice - although Unicat likes MANs, and I obviously respect their advice (with my money!), I have heard rumors of frame cracking on MANs. Can't give you any specific references however except for this:http://forum.expeditionportal.com/th...p-Ilona-Ogorek

    Fitting out the camper box is a TREMENDOUS amount of work and is requires painstaking attention to quality parts and work.
    Hopefully you don't live in the London low emissions zone - re a Euro 3 or earlier chassis.
    recent Man 18.340 specs - check frame thickness of only 7mm. My U500 with GVM a mere 15 tons (33K lb) is 9mm with 7mm reinforcement in front half:
    http://www.man-bodybuilder.co.uk/spe...ember_2016.pdf
    Last edited by charlieaarons; 11-26-2017 at 09:16 PM.
    Unimog U500 with Unicat camper; diesel BMW X5 35d, diesel BJ40 Landcruiser and diesel M37

  6. #6
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    If you can read some German look at this website https://www.pepamobil.ch/ . They have been on the road as fulltimers for the last 15 years. I know their truck and their setup and it is a very reliable and sensible basis for long term travel. Donīt get too excited about departure angles. With big truck tires and a reasonable overhang you are fine anywhere. With a truck you wonīt be able to use Jeep tracks or really go off the road anyway. Since the Sahara is essentially off limits these times are over. Fortunately I am old enough to still have enjoyed the Sahara.
    I have an Ormocar cabin and outfitted it myself. Even for a lawyer it is feasible and you can save a LOT of money. Just keep everything simple and use standard technology. And of course you know exactly how everything is build. I have been on the road for 7 years now and in my experience it is quite easy to find a good truck mechanic and parts but nobody in the 3rd world knows anything about the camping part of your rig and you can only find standard house building parts. Try to find a camping faucet. Standard Grohes or their cartridges are no problem even in Africa (at least in the main cities). Standard electrical parts are easy to find, avoid complicated electronics for your camping part wherever you can.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by charlieaarons View Post
    A longer wheelbase allows more space between wheels for big fuel tanks, gray water tank, possible generator. For sure don't go over 4.5m - 3.9 to 4.2 would be optimal. Too long of course affects turning radius and breakover angle but not ground clearance per se.
    Ah OK, that makes sense. Will try some designs with a longer wheelbase.

    Quote Originally Posted by charlieaarons View Post
    And in your searching you might find a MAN with CTIS. If so it is very desirable but make sure it works perfectly in a used vehicle (central tyre inflation system). Although it is easy to disable if not working right and sometimes it is just a leaky seal; but sometimes hard to track down.
    I'll try, but it's a super rare option. I'm guessing your Unimog has it? Do you use it a lot?

    Quote Originally Posted by charlieaarons View Post
    Fitting out the camper box is a TREMENDOUS amount of work and is requires painstaking attention to quality parts and work.
    I've very little experience but am willing to put the time/effort into doing it properly. That said, the more research I do the more daunting a task it seems.

    Quote Originally Posted by charlieaarons View Post
    Hopefully you don't live in the London low emissions zone - re a Euro 3 or earlier chassis.
    I don't, thankfully. Although the ever increasing emissions restrictions are making older trucks increasingly undesirable. But then the question is how to run a newer truck on high sulfur diesel?

    Quote Originally Posted by charlieaarons View Post
    Just a "heads up" piece of advice - although Unicat likes MANs, and I obviously respect their advice (with my money!), I have heard rumors of frame cracking on MANs. Can't give you any specific references however except for this:http://forum.expeditionportal.com/th...p-Ilona-Ogorek

    ...

    recent Man 18.340 specs - check frame thickness of only 7mm. My U500 with GVM a mere 15 tons (33K lb) is 9mm with 7mm reinforcement in front half:
    http://www.man-bodybuilder.co.uk/spe...ember_2016.pdf
    The TGM is my current favourite so that's quite worrying. Could it just be due to how popular MANs are is making the failure rates seem worse than they really are? Will need to do some more research...

    Quote Originally Posted by sg1 View Post
    If you can read some German look at this website https://www.pepamobil.ch/ . They have been on the road as fulltimers for the last 15 years. I know their truck and their setup and it is a very reliable and sensible basis for long term travel.
    That's amazing. I love seeing stuff like this.

    Quote Originally Posted by sg1 View Post
    Donīt get too excited about departure angles. With big truck tires and a reasonable overhang you are fine anywhere. With a truck you wonīt be able to use Jeep tracks or really go off the road anyway.
    Based on Charlie's advice I'm currently thinking a 4.2m wheelbase with a ~1.6m overhang (no cutout). Won't be quite Unimog levels of departure angle, but hopefully good enough for bad roads and a little off-roading.

    Quote Originally Posted by sg1 View Post
    Since the Sahara is essentially off limits these times are over. Fortunately I am old enough to still have enjoyed the Sahara.
    Can you elaborate on this? Is it just the issues in the north east that make it dangerous currently? Crossing the Sahara is on my bucket list so that really sucks if it's no longer possible.

    Quote Originally Posted by sg1 View Post
    I have an Ormocar cabin and outfitted it myself. Even for a lawyer it is feasible and you can save a LOT of money. Just keep everything simple and use standard technology. And of course you know exactly how everything is build.
    This is exactly what I'm hoping to do, and as you say there's the benefit that I'll know how everything works (I'm a little concerned that if I bought a pre-built truck and something broke in the middle of nowhere I'd have no idea how to fix it).

    Also how did you find Ormocar? They look like a good company, but there's very little information out there about them.

    Quote Originally Posted by sg1 View Post
    I have been on the road for 7 years now and in my experience it is quite easy to find a good truck mechanic and parts but nobody in the 3rd world knows anything about the camping part of your rig and you can only find standard house building parts. Try to find a camping faucet. Standard Grohes or their cartridges are no problem even in Africa (at least in the main cities). Standard electrical parts are easy to find, avoid complicated electronics for your camping part wherever you can.
    My plan is to keep the base vehicle as standard/simple as possible, so hopefully finding mechanics won't be an issue. Then the cabin I'll be able to repair myself.

    Also your thread on southern Africa looks amazing sg1.
    Last edited by Amphibious Antelope; 11-27-2017 at 05:17 PM.

  8. #8
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    Yes, I do use the CTIS some, not all the time. But pressure varies with ambient temp, it makes an excellent tire temp monitor as well as pressure monitor by using basic gas laws (which I have memorized of course). And it is ultra convenient for moving onto corrugated dirt roads, sand, mud, and getting unstuck. And with manual tire filling there is always that tendency to procrastinate which could lead to major tire damage - CTIS makes it so easy.

    keeping track of current events in the Sahara? Morocco is still OK, Mauritania dodgy, Tunisia probably OK; southern Algeria, Mali, Niger, Libya all pretty much off limits due to mini wars. Which can kill you just as well as a maxi war.
    Egypt demands 800% carnet though there are ways around it, but certainly isn't free of violence issues and does an independent traveler want a constant military guard? Northern Sinai is worse than the rest of Egypt. Chad may be going thru a "better" period but how do you get there? Southern Chad has Boko Haram problems.
    Read the HUBB (horizons Unlimited Bulletin Board)
    Last edited by charlieaarons; 11-28-2017 at 03:08 PM.
    Unimog U500 with Unicat camper; diesel BMW X5 35d, diesel BJ40 Landcruiser and diesel M37

  9. #9
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    I have read about the MAN frame failures also. My conclusion is that most of the failures are through faulty subframe designs. Our engineers and other builders I know, are well aware of that and have adjusted to that. They have never had any failures.... knock on wood!
    http://totalcomposites.com/ your supplier for European designed fiberglass sandwich panels and accessories.
    https://www.facebook.com/totalcompos...homepage_panel

  10. #10
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    Ormocar has been building composite campers since the 1980s. It's their only business. Their design is definitely not fancy but solid and they have a lot of experience. As far as I know they are the only builder who is producing his own panels. When you order you can chose how thick the fiberglass and the foam core should be. I was very happy with the build and can recommend them if you have enough time. They are very busy and usually late. Just add a few weeks to the delivery date quoted by Ormocar.

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