Bison Are Meant To Roam - One Year With Our Bison Overland Campers Rig, We're Not Quite Running Free
In March 2021, we made a very difficult decision. We decided to invest our time and money to purchase a pop-up camper from a small partnership based in Tulsa, Oklahoma - Bison Overland Campers. We always like to support small businesses, especially ones that are up and coming. We're also aware that up and coming businesses often experience some growing pains as they try to meet their customer's needs. Now, it's time to share our experience over the past year. We'll share what it has taken to keep us moving forward, even when things looked like we should probably just walk away.
As people that have followed our journey will know, we have had a few different adventure rigs over the years. Each one has taught us more and more about what really suits our needs and what may be frivolous or unnecessary. We honestly thought that our latest variation with the Tacoma/Habitat could be the final one. The reliability, performance on and off the road, and even the size actually seemed to work well. But, sometimes all it takes is a little less room to make everything seem downright obsolete.
Our family was outgrowing our Toyota Tacoma, equipped with an AT Overland Habitat. It wasn't an easy decision, but we eventually decided to pursue a full-size rig capable of fitting everyone a little bit better. Having learned what we really want, and learning how to trim the excess on builds, we weren't looking for a fully built out rig. We wanted something that we could build to suit our needs. There are definitely a LOT of options out there. But, many of them are pre-packaged and already built with options that we weren't necessarily interested in for our needs. Plus, we already had a well-outfitted modular setup that we were using in our Habitat. So, why would we want to spend our hard-earned money on something we might already have or not need?
Can This Work For Our Next Setup?
We thought we found an ideal setup when we saw the Bison Overland Campers personal shop rig listed for sale on Expedition Portal:
The vehicle was a Ram 2500 with a "shell" poptop camper mounted on a flatbed chasis. Our ideal choice for a full-size vehicle would've been a pre-2006, 5.9l Cummins Diesel, with a manual transmission. However, this vehicle was a 2015 Ram with the 6.4l gas Hemi. We weighed the pros and cons then eventually decided that the Hemi could actually suit our needs, based on the cold weather reliability and upfront savings of the gas versus diesel. If we ever decided that the Hemi wasn't working well for us, then we could always look to swap out the gas for a diesel at a later date. We even had the option to move the entire flatbed camper to another vehicle, if we needed. Little did we know exactly what we would be in for over the next year with this decision.
The original listing may have started around $60,000. However, by the time we saw the listing, the price had already been cut to $55,000. That started to make the setup work well for our budget. At one point, we were working the numbers and came up with a $25,000 value for the truck plus $25,000 for the camper or vice versa. At this price point, we would be relatively content to build out the open shell to configure a layout that would really work well for our family. We had a few ideas brewing when we thought long and hard about how we would balance what we needed with what we wanted. This was a chance to build out our own full-size, flatbed, pop-top camper exactly how we wanted. We could incorporate what we already had and basically make any additions be an upgrade.
As we were discussing details, Drew Phillips (Bison Overland Campers) let us know that Vice Customs had just built an interior for the camper. That was a little upsetting, since we were planning our own custom layout. But, the pictures of the configuration looked like something that we could work with. So, we kept moving forward.
Living in snow country and using our rig for a base camp in the mountains meant that we needed a quality heater. We had already experienced the portable propane Mr. Buddy Heaters. They always came with a fear factor, since we had known people that had succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning while using similar heaters. So, we were looking to narrow down our choice to a safer, more efficient propane heater, or a gas/diesel "parking" heater. Drew stated that he had installed a Chinese diesel heater in the cabinets with it's own fuel tank mounted in one of the flatbed storage boxes. However, none of the venting was completed. Therefore, you had to open the cabinet anytime the heater was needed. We could probably work with that, until we fully committed to the diesel heater. So, the Bison Overland Campers setup was starting to look a bit more attractive. But, what do they say about looks being deceiving?
Our next concern involved the electrical demands needed to power our 12v fridge/freezer, as well as any accessories. Our Habitat taught us to be minimalists when it comes to power needs. We like using our Iceco JP 42 and our Yeti Tundra 65. They worked extremely well together or even individually. We could always use both, if we needed a lot more food and drinks for the entire crew. The Yeti provides a bit of security in bear country. The Iceco is a low power draw and works well with the Yeti for efficient food/drink storage. This is when Drew informed us that the Vice Customs interior was built to allow for an Isotherm/Indel Webasto 130l Fridge/Freezer. We could pull out the cabinet and use our Iceco there. But, that would leave a gaping hole where one of the Tern Overland exterior doors accessed the area behind the fridge. So, Drew helped us locate the right Isotherm Drawer 130, and promised to have it mounted before we got there for pickup. Now, what about the actual power?
Power was not exactly finalized, but it was somewhat patched together. The camper was patchwork equipped with a Dakota Lithium 100ah battery, a 100v AC charger, and a small 100w Zamp Solar panel on the roof. We wanted something a bit more reliable and with a clean install. Drew stated that he had been working with Redarc and was able to source their products relatively easily. Our experience in the Tacoma had been with the Redarc BCDC25. It worked flawlessly and never let us down. It charged off the truck's alternator when we were driving, and even had a solar option. Yet, it didn't offer an option for AC charging. That meant we would need to look at their Manager 30, since the camper already had an AC plug tapped through the side. We didn't really need the AC option, but it was already there. Drew assured us that he could have everything wired and ready, since we wouldn't be picking up the camper for another month. So, we hoped for the best, without much prepping for the worst. What could possibly go wrong?
Let's Make A Deal
Let's take things backwards a little. We all knew that emails, texts, or messages on forums weren't getting the real information that any of us needed. So, Drew and I connected for a phone call to discuss the details a bit more clearly. This is where the waters got a bit murky. Drew revealed that the 2015 Ram 2500 wasn't exactly a "clean, one-owner, well-maintained" vehicle. It had been in a "small front end collision". This caused the title to be rebuilt or salvage. This was a major hiccup and red flag. But, I had experience with a motorcycle that was declared a salvage all because of some fairing damage. Yet the frame was straight and the bike still ran great. So, I wasn't exactly too deterred.
As we talked, I asked about his personal confidence in the vehicle. We were coming from an ultra-reliable Toyota Tacoma that we'd owned since new. How would he personally feel about driving his family halfway across the country with this 2015 Ram 2500? Drew assured me that he just drove it round trip to New Mexico and didn't have a worry. I put our faith in Drew and proceeded to move forward with the deal. Now, it's time to get down to business.
We eventually settled on a price that wasn't too bad for either side. There's always a little give and take in automotive negotiations. Plus, we wanted to finance the truck, while basically paying up front for the camper. We trust USAA for much of our financial and insurance needs. So, we had to have them run a VIN check to see if we could get our agreed amount approved. Here's where we got the next hiccup. Due to the nature of the title, the loan could not exceed a certain loan to value ratio in order to be approved. We then needed to come up with more cash out of pocket, since the finance amount was now cut a bit short. We handled it relatively quickly, while Drew was stating that "three other people were in line to make a deal, too". Throughout every step of the process, we handled our due diligence to make sure that our intentions were good and we were following through with what was asked.
Drew seemed in a bit of a rush when USAA approved our transaction. In fact, I'd almost say he was quite impatient. Things happen pretty expedited these days, but they're still banking transactions. Plus, we weren't even going to be able to pickup the truck and camper for another month. Yet, we were making the deal official and transferring the bulk of the money all based on trust.
There would be quite a bit of back and forth updates over the next month. Lots of text messages and photos showing the progress being made. So, we honestly felt like we were in good hands and making the right decision. That was a bit reassuring after the semi-blind investment. Most of our other reassurances were based on the words of a few other mutual friends that had seen the vehicle at the MOORE Expo ( https://mooreexpo.com ) and a couple other show and tell opportunities.
Spring Break Or Bust!!!
It definitely wasn't easy planning everything for a family of five, plus a dog, to make a cross country road trip. Add to the complications that we first had to fly halfway across the country before really embarking on the adventure. Thankfully, things were made a bit easier by the dog and ladies having their own Spring Break plans. Now, it would just be Tammy, Jackson, & myself prepping, packing, and getting our gear from South Lake Tahoe, CA to Tulsa, OK. Jackson would then get to spend a little extra time with his grandparents, while Tammy and I would get to give the Bison Overland Camper a shake down run home. The shakedown run would definitely be something we'd never forget. But, before we get to that, imagine us heading off looking like a band of gypsys.
Before we even got on the plane, Drew informed us that the fridge never showed up. Well, that meant we needed to decide on whether to pack the Yeti, the Iceco, or buy another cooler when we arrived in Oklahoma. The Yeti seemed to be the best choice. It's lockable and also let us pack a few of our cooking supplies securely. Well, it definitely was a great choice. But, it didn't make the trip entirely unscathed. Honestly, we were just happy to see it at baggage claim, still locked and wrapped in tape and cinch straps.
I also got a little more worried about the potential reliability on the truck before we left. Drew informed us that the check engine light was on and he couldn't figure out the issue to keep it off. Keep it off? We hoped that he meant fix it, but specific language can often vary. So, thankfully I packed a basic toolkit because that would eventually come in real handy.
We landed at the Tulsa airport and had to catch an Uber to get to the shop. We kind of expected Drew to meet us at baggage claim in the Bison. But, we also understand that a new small business may be pretty busy. We got dropped off in front of the shop with a pile of luggage and gear by the Uber. That's when Drew began to give me the tour. Jackson, Tammy, & Cody (Drew's partner with Bison Overland Campers) sat off to the side. Nobody was really treated with much in the way of Southern hospitality. We weren't offered any water, a beer, or even asked if anyone needed to use the bathroom after the long travel day. That wasn't exactly Southern hospitality or very cordial. Maybe they were more business than pleasure?
Walking in the shop, I could see a couple other projects in the works. I liked what I saw for the framing and some of the detail work on the workbenches. But, our 2015 Ram Tradesman 2500 with the flatbed and Bison Overland Camper looked a little more rough around the edges. What did we just do? Should we abort now and keep moving on? Or, are we up for a challenge? Do we have faith that Drew is a man of his word?
The interior of the truck had been pretty neglected in the cleaning process. There were quite a few stray wires, including a particular one right through the driver's side door jam. Even all of the original truck bed wiring was tucked up and onto the spare tire. The self-tapping screws around the perimeter looked like they had left their mark across the canvas. And, there were a couple other fit and finish details that we wish had received a little bit more attention. But, we had originally planned on building out this camper on our own, so this wasn't a complete setback. But, it was a bit of a letdown after all the lip service.
The tour also revealed that the Redarc was never wired to the truck's main alternator/battery. So, we had to put our trust in the 100w Zamp solar panel's wiring (which really looked pretty sketchy) to maintain the Dakota Lithium's 100ah battery while we were on the road.
The Dakota Lithium battery wasn't even tied down or secured. There was also a used surgical mask in the glove box. And, the truck had lots of dents and dings, which isn't unheard of for an Overland vehicle. Our excitement was getting a bit overshadowed by each new discovery. We also noticed quite a few other things. Some of the items which had been agreed upon and were supposed to be fixed. Others were items that were supposed to be delivered later. Here's a quick list that we eventually wrote down:
Check engine light popped on when we got about 5 miles away
Oil was sludge, needed change
Registration/tag was well expired 10/2020?
Rear passenger window broken
AC input cover on camper blows in the wind
Truck heater isn’t necessarily blowing hot
Wiring was questionable for Spod & flatbed
L-tracks missing on the roof for roof rack
Trailer wiring harness isn’t wired appropriately
Missing lock cylinder on heater tank box
Sharp corners on countertops
Only one ignition key and camper key
No heater ducts connected or control panel mounted for the diesel heater
Photos didn’t match - where is the 6 rocker switch on dash, recovery boards, etc.? The truck was quite a bit different than some of the listing's photos.
Holes in the soft-sided walls of the canvas
Misalignment of passenger tie down hook for roof latch
LT Headlight shoots to the sky
Headlights have moisture in them
Battery drained...no solar from 4/16 on
Door seal on rear door was loose and hanging down
Gas tank was on empty
Pickup from airport?
This is just a quick list of what we experienced from the inspection/drive home. We were assured throughout the entire process that Drew would "do what's right" to make up for any differences in the delivery expectations. But, we needed to hit the road. We had a pretty tight schedule to make it home for the kiddos. So, how were we going to settle things moving forward? First things first, it was time to hit the road. Kick the tires. Light the fires. Let's see how this Bison can roam across the West!!!
Life Is A Highway, Let's Roll
The real adventure was just about to begin. We had 2000 miles ahead of us and we weren't exactly sure what needed addressing first. The gas tank was basically empty when we picked up the truck. So, the first task would be to find gas.
At the gas station, I took a closer look around the truck. The oil didn't look great. But, I needed to get from Tulsa to Edmond, OK. It was already a LONG day of travel. The filler spout on the flatbed shot fuel all over me. That should've been a sign. But, I cleaned up with some paper towels and got in for the 100 mile drive down the road.
As soon as I hit the highway, the check engine light popped on. I checked the gauges and saw that the oil pressure was running a little low. As I said, the oil didn't look great. But, the levels were good. It almost looked like a mix of black coffee and a mocha latte combined. It was too late to find an open shop. Let's just hope the truck makes it down the highway without blowing up.
Thankfully, we did make it down the highway. We pulled into my parent's driveway after a long and adventurous day. They came out for a quick tour. We unloaded our clothes and settled in for the night, in my paren't house and not the camper. The next day, we were planning to meet a person at Perfection Truck Parts & Equipment to install an AEV Bumper, winch, and lights, which we purchased from someone coincidentally in Oklahoma, too. Hopefully Perfection could offer a bit of assistance, in regards to our mechanical issues.
The following morning I started up the truck to go to Perfection, and the check engine light had miraculously disappeared. I was still worried. But, that made us feel a little bit better. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
We got to Perfection, completed the deal to pay for the winch and bumper with the individual selling the AEV bumper, and went about business discussing the install with Albert & Jamie, from Perfection. Immediately, I had a great feeling with their staff. Their bays were packed with quality installs and their tech was going over many of the specific details with us. I forgot about our check engine fiasco and started feeling very good about the truck being in their hands.
Originally, they were just going to mount the bumper and we'd handle the connections for the lights and winch ourselves. That plan changed after talking things over, and I'm glad we did. Not only did they perform a great install of the bumper and winch. They also cleaned up some of the dangerous wiring because "they wouldn't feel right knowing our kids were riding in something that dangerous". Thank you, Perfection!!! Things were definitely looking up.
The extra time at Perfection was nice, but it did put us a bit behind schedule. We took a little more time to clean up the interior of the cab, as well as the camper, before heading down the road for the long drive home. And, our check engine light remained a mystery...but not for long.
Lots Shaking On Shakedown Street
First thing ANYONE should do when they purchase a new or used vehicle is to check all the fluids. Even if the fluids look good, do you actually trust the person from before? Well, we naively trusted Drew when he said that the old window sticker for the oil change wasn't up to date. He said he personally changed the oil and the sticker was wrong. Maybe this is why the oil looked different?
The Hemi usually prefers a synthetic blend. It also requires a different viscosity of 0w40, compared to the usual 10w40. Could the oil be a mixed blend? Is that what's causing the check engine light? Well, we need to know ASAP. The check engine light just came back on as we're looking at 1900+ miles to get home.
Tammy took out the truck's manual and started reading with abandon. I'm driving down the highway pretty gingerly, while reading out the data from the information panel to Tammy. Our oil pressure is hovering around 30psi when it should be closer to 50 or 60psi. She gets extremely worried that we're going to blow the truck up before we even get out of Oklahoma. So, we start looking for an oil shop. Luckily, we find a Dodge/Ram dealer in Elk City, which is only a few miles up the road.
We pull into the Doug Gray Dodge Dealership in Elk City to see quite a few flatbeds sitting in the lot. Some of our codes were due to the flatbed wiring, so this added experience should help ease our worries. We also park next to a brand new TRX Ram in the sales bay. Already, things are looking up.
The service advisor (Michael) was on the ball. And, the three techs (Gary, Kelly, Mike) did a great job of guiding me through what looks good, what needs immediate attention, as well as what can be addressed later. They thoroughly tidy things up for us and get us on the way with only a small delay. It's always better to take your time to be thorough, versus rushing and missing something important. Now, we can safely be on our way. Time to ease on down the road.
Is It Safe To Test Those Bumps On And Off The Road?
We were now a bit behind schedule, so we had to change our original plans a little. Instead of an awesome campground in the mountains of New Mexico, our first adventure would lead us to a lovely night in a truck stop. But, we still had to get there.
As we headed west through Oklahoma and Texas, the rain started to come down. We were thankfully prepared for some precipitation. So we turned on the wipers, which had just been replaced after our others disintegrated on our drive from Tulsa to OKC. As the clouds grew darker and darker, we noticed that one of our headlights had a mind of it's own. The driver's side headlight was shooting off above the street signs well past the side of the road. That meant we basically had one good headlight...until the fog really rolled in.
Somewhere between West Texas and Eastern New Mexico, the storm brought on some extremely thick fog. Our skyward headlight was blinding us reflecting back off the fog. So, we got to test the lights that Perfection mounted when they installed our bumper and winch. The fog lights were wired separately of the headlights on the knockoff SPOD, as well as another set of amber lights that came with the truck, and a Vision X light bar that really turns night into day. We would alternate our lighting needs, based on the density of the fog. All I can say is thank you that we weren't on a very crowded road. We were able to turn off the headlights and use the auxillary lighting. There was only one time that I accidentally hit the light bar, instead of turning off the ambers, with a fat-fingered move. I was quick, but I may have potentially blinded an oncoming vehicle. At least it was down low and not from an overhead light bar.
That first night was an end to an exhaustingly long day. We were both pretty run down, so it was a few snacks in the camper, while we learned a bit more about the wiring. I tested a few of the lights and learned that some exterior lights weren't even connected. I also fired up the diesel heater, before we got deeper into the Rockies. The directions were relatively easy to follow. But, the remote was based on images and not text. In the end, I was able to figure it all out with some trial and error. We shut it all down, and settled in for the night. We'd spend the night at the truck stop with all the other truckers, while being serenaded by the low hum of their diesel engines.
The next morning it was actually nice to have the truck stop available. We hit the bathroom, freshened up, and got a few road worthy accessories for our new rig. It was pretty easy to pack up and get going. So, we started to gain back a little bit of the time that we had lost.
It was a beautiful drive through Cimarron Canyon State Park, around Eagle's Nest, and into Taos, NM. We took a small detour to some hot springs along the Rio Grande, then continued towards Pagosa Springs, CO.
This part of the country is beautiful. But, we didn't have a lot of time to relax and enjoy. I shot a few time lapses and they really captured our rushed adventure. We were aiming for the San Juans of Southwestern Colorado and hoping to find a nice camp spot for the night.
Well, as luck would have it, we found availability at Orvis Hot Springs. Unfortunately, their camping was full. But, they did have one of their quaint rooms in the lodge available for the night. At least we didn't have to pop the top or fire up the heater, since it was snowing and cold. Speaking of snow, we got to test the 4x4 and Federal Xplora R/T tires going over the Million Dollar Highway just as the sun was setting. Talk about a trial by fire (well, ice). Everything engaged and gripped the road like it should. That's a road test to gauge any 4x4 rig. It also prepared us for what we would need to know once we were back home in the Sierra. At least some things were looking good.
We took full advantage of the 24 hour access to the hot springs. We even used their kitchen to make some dinner. Things were starting to look a bit more like a brief escape and not an endless adventure. The oasis at Orvis Hot Springs was a much welcomed reprieve from the drama on the road
Snow Gives Way To Sun
Once we left Orvis Hot Springs, the weather cleared up. We continued west through Southwest Colorado and into Southeastern Utah. We spent an uneventful night near Natural Bridges, where I worked to adjust the headlights. Removing the cover, I discovered that the plastic was busted and needed more than a desert repair would allow. However, everything else seemed to be doing well...except our solar.
We had picked up the Bison on April 12th. It was now April 18th, and we hadn't seen any input to the batteries since April 16th. The sun was shining, so it wasn't due to lack of sun on the panel. It must be somewhere between the panel and the battery. We looked a little closer, but we couldn't figure out why we weren't getting good power. If only the Redarc Manager 30 had been wired to the truck battery, then we'd be getting a charge while we were driving. But, our battery was still reading with 28 days left until empty. We should be OK.
We then camped near some hot springs closer to the Nevada border, but still in Utah. It was a brisk night, but not bone chilling. We had a quick soak, enjoyed a bevo, and called it a night. No lights left on. No heater running. Basically, no power draw, since we were using the Yeti, while waiting for our fridge to be delivered. Yet, when we woke up in the morning, the battery was quickly draining.
I was really getting concerned. We rushed to get the camper ready to lower the roof. Coffee was put on hold. It was a quick pack session to clear things out of the roof's way. I even jiggled the wires from the roof's solar panel to see if we could get some continuity. But, nothing was working consistently. Oh, did I mention that the roof would raise and lower via powered actuators? I watched helplessly as the battery quickly drained. So, I disconnected the negative terminal and tried to see how I could save the remaining power to successfully lower our roof.
Packing a toolset, as well as an emergency lithium jump start pack, was a lifesaver. However, I probably should've also packed some real jumper cables. Unfortunately they didn't make the cut. they were sitting safely at home in our trusty Tacoma. Now, I was trying to figure out how to jumper our actuators with an emergency jump start battery pack.
We made sure that we we going to be good to go. Everything was out of the way. We may only get one shot, so it has to be as flawless as can be. I connected the negative terminal back to the battery, had the inverter on and ready to go, and listened to the beep from the Redarc warning us that the battery was dangerously low. I connected the jumper pack, powered it on, and was able to get just enough juice to get the actuators moving.
It was a one and done scenario. There was no raising and lowering of the roof to gently tuck in the canvas. I ran around with a rubber spatula while racing the roof lowering down. Unbelievably, the plan actually worked. Our roof was down. We didn't need to find cell service to call for help. And, most importantly, we didn't have to dismantle the actuators or drive down the highway with our top stuck in the up position.
Confidence Is Lost!!!
After the latest fiasco, our confidence in the entire Ram 2500/Bison Overland Campers package was pretty shot. We still had a LONG way to get home. Plus, we were supposed to be picking up Jackson at the airport in Reno in a couple of days. We could not risk getting stuck or having any more delays. He was flying back from my parents as an unaccompanied minor. They tend to frown when nobody is there to pickup the kids at the end of the flight.
We had to make an urgent decision. Do we backtrack towards Salt Lake City, UT to try to find someone that might help with the repairs or do we make a marathon run across The Loneliest Road In America towards our home in South Lake Tahoe, CA? We couldn't be confident that the Ram/Bison would be reliable enough to be there for Jackson if we camped another night. We also knew that our time was running out. So, we pushed forward and decided to go straight home with no more stops, besides fuel and bathroom breaks.
After over 12 hours of driving across Utah and Nevada, we pulled into our own driveway. We grabbed our toiletries and went to sleep in our own bed. We had a few hours rest before it was time to get up and head to the airport in Reno, NV to meet Jackson. At least we knew that our other vehicle wouldn't leave us stranded on the side of the road.
How would we build the confidence in our 2015 Ram 2500? And, how much work would be needed to make our Bison Overland Campers a safe, reliable, and trustworthy rig for our home on the road? As I've said, little did we know what we would really be in for.
A Man Is Only As Good As Their Word
Being safe at home meant that we could take the time to dig deeper into what might be wrong with the truck, as well as the camper. We also had a few of our local mechanics that we could tap for assistance. In the past, we've had some great experiences with shops/mechanics. But, we've also learned many a lesson the hard way. This time, we'd see what we could tackle on our own and be very specific in our requirements when we needed assistance. There were two shops that we'd eventually put our faith in to help dial things in. The first was with our good friend, Brian, at Honest Automotive. The second was with our new friend, KP, at Six Gun Twelve Volt/Zero Declination.
Drew was interested about our experience, but more concerned about getting some photos for Redarc. I'm sure that they would love to hear how their system was part of the reason that we were almost stranded in the Utah desert. Here's an excerpt from one of the texts between Drew and I on April 21st: "Hmm I know when we hooked up to Redarc, and pulled it outside it wasn’t reading solar. But our 12v checked connections and cleaned panel and it was reading as normal. I didn’t have issues prior to the Manager30, so it seemed just to be connection. Let me get more details from him and see if there was anything specific other than loose connections.". Well, that information would have been VERY useful before we embarked on a 2000 mile cross-country road trip from your shop with your namesake camper. The text exchange continued like this after we mentioned that our neighbor, who is an engineer, was helping us look over a few things:
Us - "We're putting together a list of a few things that we can hopefully work together with, so we aren't chasing our tail.".
Drew - "Oh really? I'm curious to know what he says. Our 12v guy is pretty good. He didn't wire it originally but rewired from fuse panel.".
Us - "A few fuses were omitted Nothing was on the ground in the bay. But, the battery was also loose. So, maybe things wriggled too much to maintain a solid connection.".
Drew - "Gotcha. I definitely want to make sure that’s addressed with our 12v guy. Let me know and I can help cover any fixes needed.".
There were quite a few other text exchanges over the next month. We were waiting for the L-track that was promised, as well as the Isotherm 130l Fridge, and even the Lagun table mount. But, we were also having difficulty tracing the source to many of the problems that we were experiencing. We really were basically chasing our tails. This was one of the reasons that we would have liked to do a clean install, instead of cleaning up someone else's mess.
By May 17th, we'd exhausted our experience levels and were spending more time tracing problems than fixing them. So, we took the vehicle to KP's shop in Reno, NV. I had called KP on a Saturday when the shop was closed. He was working on some personal things, but gave me the time to share some of what we had going on. Immediately, I liked his no BS attitude and brutal honesty. I knew we found our right guy. KP has a great insight to what works well for electronics in campers, and his team is amazing. The crew over there found quite a few things that could've been performed better and got our electronics working well and up to date.
Some of the items they addressed were connecting the Redarc to the truck, fixing some poor soldered connections from the solar panel, swapping the 100w panel for a 300w panel, safely securing the Dakota Lithium battery, and adding a Victron Energy solar controller, so we could monitor the solar from outside the camper and have a bit of redundancy, since the Redarc had given us issues. KP also added proper breakers and fuses. He cleaned up the rest of the truck's wiring that was tucked up on the spare tire and causing code errors. He addressed the trailer connection wiring issues. He even made sure that ALL of the interior/exterior lights were wired and actually working properly. We were definitely feeling a bit better. Things were looking up.
Once the truck came back from KP's, I was able to install the Lagun table mount that finally showed up. The L-track never showed, so we wouldn't have a roof rack, which may be a foreshadowing of future events. We were spending a bit more time dealing with issues than we were out actually enjoying the camper. But, we were able to squeeze in a few family trips. One adventure was unfortunately for a friend's memorial. Each trip was revealing a little bit more and more that needed attention. Our path was still moving forward, no matter what setbacks we endured.
Having the electronics gremlins squared away, I could finally tackle the Isotherm fridge that finally showed up. The wiring was already run. The cabinet was built based on the dimensions listed. So, it should just be an almost plug and play install. In typical fashion, the fridge was able to slide right in; however, there wasn't enough room to factor in the trim piece. The trim piece can't be ignored. It helps secure the refrigerator door latch and has the mounting points to keep the fridge from sliding around. I'd have to make a few modifications to the cabinet, add a new piece of plywood, and use a little finesse to get our fridge installed properly. We finally got our permanently mounted 12v fridge/freezer.
Now, what about the actual reliability of the Ram 2500?
Next up was a visit to Honest Automotive in Sparks, NV to see my friend, Brian. Brian and I go way back. We've worked together for years and I know his work ethic, as well as his forthcoming nature. He'll tell you exactly what needs to be done, and even what you can put off until you can afford to address it better later. There really is something to his shop's name.
He was able to look over the truck and give us a thorough run down. The hydroboost on the power steering needed immediate attention. Some of the other steering components also needed attention. He would eventually repair the broken rear window, the headlights, the widshield washer ports, and give the vehicle a thorough inspection, including all of the fluids. Once we left there, we could feel a major difference in the truck's reliability.
Things were slowly coming together. We were gradually moving forward and getting closer to having some fun and memorable adventures. Unfortunately, Summer was now coming to a close. We'd get one more adventure coming up during the Thanksgiving Break, while camping in our friend's backyard. Well, in typical fashion, it's definitely another adventure to remember.
Sierra Snow In October, Fun In The Sun In November
Winter started off looking like it would come in early and strong. But, after some good snowfall and rains in October, November was unseasonably warm and dry. So, when Thanksgiving rolled around, we got excited to bust out the camper in our friend's backyard. We loaded up our green bean casserole, packed a few bevos, threw our bags in the back, loaded up the family, and headed down for a fun Friendsgiving.
Once there, I pulled in the backyard and let everyone else head off while I popped the top and tidied up our already made bed. Upon opening, I saw a glimmer of daylight on the front, driver's side corner. There had been a couple holes from the self-tapping screws and even the hinge mechanism, but this was much bigger. When I put my knee down on the bed to secure the hinge, I felt the squish. Our bed was soaked. Our pillows were wet. The comforter and wool blanket weren't damp. They were wet!!! I lifted up the mattress and saw mold and mildew all across our bed's plywood subfloor. Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!
My fun Friendsgiving immediately changed to containment and cleanup. I opened up all the windows. I stripped the bedding. I put what was salvageable in our friend's washing machine. And, I pulled the mattress and other items out to dry. We were lucky that we were at a friend's house. Imagine if we had a trip planned with the kiddos to some boondocking spot. We'd be left without any dry bedding or a way to properly clean and sanitize. We'd have been stuck and forced to endure the effects of the mold and mildew.
I was able to accomplish quite a bit over the next few hours. I ran over to WalMart to load up on mold/mildew abatement supplies. I fired up the diesel heater (which was now somehow missing it's exhaust pipe). And, I also busted out our ceramic space heater. Lots of ventilation. Lots of warm, dry, air. And, lots of steps with cleaning, and cleaning, and cleaning. I earned my Thanksgiving dinner!!!
Onward And Upward - Keep Moving Forward
Keep moving forward has been our mantra, since we first thought about upgrading our rig. We'd had some ups and downs with the Tacoma and the Habitat. But, the Ram/Bison seemed to hit harder from the get go. It's been a year that we'd sometimes wish to forget. But, we're also one step closer to having everything just the way we want. Whoever said that would be easy?
Every vehicle has it's pros and cons. There's fuel economy, power, computer issues, cheap parts, and more. No camper is completely designed for every adventure. There are always compromises. What we're trying to do is to minimize our risks to maximize our rewards. That's the main reason that we sought out a shell camper.
We NEED a reliable shelter, free from leaks. We NEED a vehicle that won't leave us stranded in a Sierra snowstorm. We NEED room for five, plus our dog. As with most things in life, it's a balance of needs versus wants.
As of now, we still need to address the sharp trim pieces that are perforated with self-tapping screws. Those screws are busy making the canvas resemble Swiss cheese. We definitely don't want to have another issue with mold/mildew and water damage. One potential solution is to add a rubberized coating to the sharp areas or swap the trim pieces with a different type of material. The next intensive service need would be to replace the canvas with something more robust and reliable. Our friends at Poptop Overland have offered a viable alternative. We look forward to seeing what they might be able to offer. We'll be meeting with them before this upcoming Summer gets underway. We hope that will add to our camper's functionality, reliability, and weather resistance.
We should also seal the boxes around the flatbed. We've heard that many boxes leak. But, we think that we can make ours much less permeable. Thankfully, our compressor that was in there may have survived the unexpected submersion. But, we haven't exactly field tested it to be completely sure 100 percent. We're just glad that it wasn't a permanently mounted setup like we had originally planned. Otherwise, it may have been a much more costly lesson.
There will also be some maintenance issues soon in regards to the Ram 2500's front end. The hydroboost repair revealed a few more weak points. We hope that they'll last for a little bit longer before they need immediate attention. At that point, we may even tackle the mix and match suspension components. The 37" tires fit, but they rub on the sway bar as well as some areas of the front fender. We're just happy that we're actually confident driving the vehicle and trust that we won't necessarily be left stranded on the side of the road.
We spent a lot of time over the past year with our camper out of commission or in the shop. It was extremely frustrating to have electrical, mechanical, and even structural issues. Nothing really hurt more than having the Caldor Fire barreling down on our brick and mortar house, while our home on wheels was sitting idle in the shop being repaired. On a positive note, we didn't have to factor that in to the equation when we were being evacuated. Although, it would've been great to have our camper to ride out the multiple week evacuation.
As you may have understood, there has been a lot of back and forth between us and Bison Overland Campers, specifically Drew. We hope that Bison Overland Campers, and especially Drew, takes our feedback and uses it to evolve into a successful business. Imagine if the feedback from our experience is used to make their campers better and more reliable for the next customer. We also hope that they're learning a little about what it truly means to be a responsible business owner, that is willing to stand behind their product.
As of today (April 4th), we've basically been ghosted multiple times. Our last text was from December. Our last email communication was on February 16th about "making things right" in regards to an agreement. There was quite a bit of lip service and promises ignored. We know that Drew has been busy. We constantly see his social media, so we know that the Bison Overland Campers team is working away. We've had quite a few people reach out for information. People want to learn from our experience, before making the large investment for their own Bison Overland Camper. We can relate to their apprehensions and quest for information.
We've all heard about Phil and the Down2Mob camper. We're happy to see it actually make it in time for the 2022 MOORE Expo. Remember that it's not easy being part of a small business partnership and meeting specific deadlines. You can have cheap, quality, or fast, but not necessarily all three. Most importantly, remember that there are quite a few businesses that have had their own growing pains. In many instances, that's what helped mold them into the long-lasting, quality customer service, and successful companies that they are today.
To our surprise, Bison Overland Campers did actually help cover some of the maintenance costs related to the reliability of the 2015 Ram 2500, as well as some small camper repairs. Here's a breakdown of what we recently received assistance with:
Doug Gray Dodge, Elk City (Oil Change, Code Errors, Check Engine, etc.) - $213.59
(Hydroboost) - $558
(Window Motor, Regulator/Switch) - $274.02
Six Gun Twelve Volt/Zero Declination
(Taillight/Flatbed Wiring) - $150
(Solar Panel Rewiring) - $200