Skip to main content

Part 2: Thinking Your Way Out of, and Into, a Box

If you too are in the habit of coming up with "brilliant" ideas, only to find that they don't work out as well as expected, you might enjoy having a good laugh at my frustration.

Since only a small fraction of the readers have the same needs for a new tow vehicle that I do, I will try to drag my problem towards more general ideas, as the post moves along. 

Until then, recall the starting point of this problem-solving exercise: the most economical way to live at the point of diminishing returns regarding comfort and camping freedom is to pull a converted cargo trailer. I have had this opinion for a decade, and now I am proving it in real life. 

Now it is time to move on to Phase 2, finding a good tow vehicle for a lightweight trailer (3000 pounds loaded). By "good" I mean:

1. Something far less than the standard pickup price of $65000 (or whatever).
2. Something that can get over 20 mpg unhitched. (I only tow 2000 miles per year, so I can be a good loser and accept deplorable fuel economy when towing. Besides, there is nothing much you can do about it.)
3. As much ground clearance as a full-size van. Pickups and truck-based SUVs have more, crossover utility vehicles (except Subaru) have less, minivans and passenger cars have far less.
4. Modern goodies such as anti-lock brakes and traction control. I'd probably be happy with rear wheel drive, just for economy's sake. By "goodies" I don't mean electronic bells and whistles, motorized mirrors, and all the rest of that crap.
5. Good storage: the ability to carry two bicycles inside, with the front wheels off of course, but without lowering the saddle of the bicycles. Also I need enough room to store a half dozen medium sized plastic boxes and 20-30 gallons of water. 
6. A nominal tow rating of 5000 pounds.

Does it seem like I am asking for "the moon and the stars"? I don't think so. But automotive industry, government regulations, and financialization trends have made it difficult.

My "brilliant" idea was to hang out in Crested Butte, CO, one of the founding fathers of mountain biking, and study all the vehicles coming in. Over half of them had mountain bikes. Surely I could get a good idea or two. Why 'reinvent the wheel?'

Alas, I was completely skunked. The visitors were just tourists with external bicycle racks, usually on the rear. I even saw a full-size van, like what I am driving now, with the bicycles stored on an external rack. Sigh.

So I retreated downriver to Gunnison, a far better area to mountain bike. While nursing my wounds, guess what I saw? A couple homemade pickup caps (shells, canopies). I said "cap" (an inverted tub that clamps to the rails of the cargo bed), not "slide-in camper."

Why didn't I think of that before?! Well actually I did, but a painted plywood cap seemed too downscale and embarrassing. Not so. They looked fine. I am really excited. 

This post is getting too long, so I'll live up to my promises next time.


John V said…
It sounds like you've come full circle back to where you were at the coffee shop in Patagonia earlier this year. We talked about a pick-up with a cap, but you weren't satisfied with the head room. So that's changed. You should have no problem getting exactly what you want as described above. Even Consumer Reports might be useful for a truck like that. Our 2012 F350 DRW is 10x the truck you need and it gets 20-22 MPH when not towing and cost under $40,000. The affordable world of lightweight trucks with home made caps will be your cornucopia! Have fun with that.
Allison said…
We have a fiberglass canopy on the back of our pickup. We still have to lower the seat on one mountain bike to get it in there. There are canopies made that go up at the back, so that would probably negate the requirement to lower seats. It's a pain to have to do it all the time. We built an internal rack (sheet of plywood and fork blocks) for the bed of the pickup for two road bikes and two mountain bikes. It doesn't leave much room for anything else. If you only have two bikes then one side of the bed will be available for water and storage.
Good luck with getting 20 mpg. In a 2011 Chevy half ton we see 14 in town, 18 on the highway and we never tow anything.
I personally think the cargo van is the best thing ever created for bikes and towing. It's a giant configurable box that will hold a lot. A pickup loses volumetric efficiency due to the back seat and the front wall of the bed.
Steve said…
The Toyota FJ will fit your needs. I am getting 21.7 mpg not towing anything. I've put my 29" mtn bike in back sitting up without the front wheel, no problem. Room for two bikes like that. I have two 7gl water containers that I carry, one on the passenger side floorboard the other in back. I am not sure if you are looking for a new or used tow vehicle.
Lots of good stuff in this comment, Allison. Thanks for the examples that you gave. It was helpful.

Yes, there are expensive pickup caps that climb upward towards the back (stern) of the truck. It takes a 42" clearance for the mountain bike of this 5'11.5" guy for the saddle to clear. Flared caps like this might even produce a climbing air slipstream that helps with fuel economy when you are pulling a trailer.

But say, why not buy an inexpensive non-flared cap in the used marketplace, and put a wooden spacer between the cap and the rails of cargo bed? I've never seen this done, but it sounds doable for any experienced do-it-yourselfer/woodworker. That would get me out of building the entire cap, worrying about a roof leak, etc.

About your Chevy half ton. Remember that a 2011 doesn't have the modern, direct-injected engine with the 6 speed automatic transmission. Perhaps it is just as well: maybe your 2011 engine and transmission will be more durable than the new ones. How can anyone know if these new engines just shift costs from the fuel pump to the repair shop?
The good news is that the world of mid-size trucks hasn't been completely killed off. Yes, the Nissan Frontier and the Toyota Tacoma are the only current survivors of the gigantification of pickup trucks, and they both are rather obsolete, with mediocre fuel economy.

But of all people GM rides in to the rescue with its mid-size Colorado/Canyon twins this fall. They've even got Nissan jumping into bed with Cummins for a small diesel engine in the new Frontier. Too bad that Ford won't bring the Ranger back, despite the fact that they still sell it outside North America.

But to your point: it isn't just the height of the cap that I need to tweak. It's also the length. Many used mid-size trucks only have a 5' cargo bed length. My mountain bike is a little longer than that with the handlebar bag. So a homemade cap would need to overhang the end of the pickup by a couple inches. And the tailgate would have to be scrapped.
Steve, Thank you so much for talking about your 29er bikes in the back of the FJ. You would be amazed how worthless all the stuff is in car reviews and discussion forums. If only they talked like you do.

But about your fuel economy: you're not pulling a "Chinle" on me, are you? Is that with a 6 speed manual transmission rather than the 5 speed automatic? Toyota's engines and transmissions are getting pretty old-fashioned.

Remember that I am TOWING my cargo trailer with the tow vehicle. I wouldn't want a manual transmission.
Teri said…

This blog has a picture of a tall pickup cap, Jo had it made at a company in AZ, maybe you could email her for more details.
TomInBellaVista said…
You appear to be shopping for a new vehicle which surprises me. You are discounting the Toyota products for obsolete engine technology, and poorer fuel mileage, but wouldn't the depreciation hit of a new truck more than offset the total cost of owning a nice used Takoma?
Tom, right you are about depreciation. But used Tacomas are so over-priced I won't even search for them.
The cap in that picture is just what I would want, minus the windows. Too bad she doesn't make any information available on her blog. Maybe you're right about emailing her.
edlfrey said…
I spent some time on the blog also and could not find a name of the place she got the shell but I think it was built to her specs. I also think it was in Tucson, AZ but can not say that for sure. There are a number of camper/shell/cap places in Tucson and I'm willing to bet one of them would build what you want.
She writes about picking it up on 12 September 2013 and provides some pictures of it on and off the truck. I would send her an email.
John V said…
If you're going to drive a vehicle until the wheels fall off, buying a new.vehicle makes more sense than it used to. ZIRP has made everything from used cars to houses to higher education overpriced. There aren't any deals for cash buyers of any asset that there used to be. So go ahead and pay for the quality level you need (new or used) and drive that sucker into the ground.
I am not an experienced buyer/shopper for cars. Craigslist frustrates the hell out of me. And the used marketplace seems over-priced. Who would pay $15000 for a used Tacoma with 106000 miles on it? Gimme a break.

The only semi-bargain I've ever run into is to show up at a dealer's lot in September and buy one of "last year's" models that is still sitting there. The dealer must see them as losers that need to be liquidated. And the warranty clock hasn't started running on them.

I've seen farmer/rancher trim, regular cab F150s for $20000 like this.
Teri said…
The last several autos that I purchased were about a year old, dealers models, with low miles. They use these autos at the car shows, or at golf tournaments, etc. Check out pricing with Consumer Reports or another service, go in armed with pricing info, walk away if they start to play games. My husband hated buying cars, I didn't like it, but actually enjoyed aggravating the salesmen. My RV only had 7000 miles on it and I paid less than you might have to pay for a new pickup truck.
TomInBellaVista said…
You may have tried "Autotrader" already, but I'll mention it for their relatively sophisticated ability to screen for your choices. You might be surprised at what pops up after you play with the parameters for a bit. I have used the site successfully for both purchases and sales. Car dealers list vehicles here, and sometimes their internet prices are superior to what you can achieve on the lot.
Steve said…
No "Chinle" I have an app on my iphone that tracks the gallons I put in it and miles driven...all manual data entry. I have a 5-speed automatic. I'd prefer a 6-speed manual but I couldn't pass on this one I bought...too many good things.

I would say towing your cargo trailer, I'd estimate 14-17mpg. I am surprised about my 21mpg as I was expecting 18mpg and 15 to tow.

Steve said…
I've had really good luck over the years of finding cars and 4x4's to buy on
Steve, Those are pretty good numbers. Maybe I should try harder to overcome my prejudice against discontinued cars like the FJ. (And my prejudice against over-priced used Toyotas.)