There is an actual Pan-American Highway and it does follow a specific route. The highway is even labeled the Pan-American Highway in many countries and it is usually numbered as highway CA1. However, most Pan-American Highway travelers don’t strictly follow the actual highway. They branch off to visit specific areas, and they zigzag across countries in a generally southern direction. They meet up with the actual highway every once in a while.
Arriving at our current rig was a process with a few false starts along the way. In fact, we ended up with different rigs; one for the northern Pan-American and another for the southern Pan-American. I spent a lot of time researching every possible vehicle type. While reading the blogs of other Pan-American travelers, I became educated about where we wanted to go, and therefore what kind of vehicle we should consider. You can complete the Pan-American in virtually any kind of vehicle because the basic route is pavement all the way. However, your choice of vehicle can limit how remote you get, and your choice of vehicle is also related to how much risk you are comfortable with. For instance, if you want to do the Lagunas route from the Bolivian salt flats to Chile, you will need a vehicle that is capable of that. Additionally, if you spend US $100,000 on your vehicle, then you need to know that you can’t get comprehensive (theft, etc.) insurance for the vehicle, so you will need to be comfortable with the risk of losing that altogether.
If you are in the process of researching your own Pan-American trip I recommend you watch the YouTube video series by Dan Grec of The Road Chose Me. He has a whole series of videos that provide practical information on vehicles and many other topics of relevance to planning a Pan-American trip.
We do want to do the Lagunas route and some other remote tracks so I came up with the following basic criteria:
- Four wheel drive
- Plenty of clearance.
- Indoor living space.
- Turn-key – i.e. not too many modifications required to the vehicle.
- Affordable cost for our budget.
From this criteria, we eventually decided upon a Ford F-250 Tremor pickup truck with a Four Wheel Campers Hawk pop-up truck camper. A four-wheel drive van was our second choice, but they were cost-prohibitive. The regular camper vans did not have enough ground clearance for our needs, and in my opinion, are not built to take the punishment of washboard.
We took this rig on a couple of shake-down trips – one to the Gaspe peninsula of Quebec, Canada, and another longer trip to Newfoundland, Canada. By the end of the second trip, we had decided that we did not like the Hawk truck camper. We had a number of issues with this camper:
- The bed had to be set up and taken down each day.
- The bed was difficult for us to climb into.
- The bed was very uncomfortable. The thickness of the mattress is limited by the room when the top is down and the mattress has to be divided into sections so that it can be made smaller during the daytime. The bed is pulled out into a queen size at night and pushed in during the day. This means the mattress is actually several sections which is uncomfortable when your hips end up on a seam.
- It is a tin can – they are made of aluminum. The noise during a rainstorm is loud and condensation during cool weather is pretty bad. You can tell these campers are made for California, not for Canada.
- Accessing the larger storage cabinets in the dinette area was a pain.
- Ours was built during the pandemic and the build quality was not good. It leaked during a rainstorm and had other quality issues.
Before we bought Griego and Chica we had intended to go to Overland Expo West and try one out. That plan was canceled when air travel was shut down by the pandemic so we watched Youtube videos and decided to buy one sight unseen. Affecting that decision was the growing waiting list for Four Wheel Campers during the pandemic which put the pressure on to get into the queue. I am actually not convinced we would have picked up on the issues we had with the camper in a short-term viewing at a dealer or Overland Expo West. We likely needed the long-term experience we had to find out it wasn’t the camper for us. Fortunately, with the new build wait list reaching over a year during the pandemic, we were able to sell that camper for close to what we paid for it.
To replace Chica we bought Seven, which is a Northstar Liberty. This camper has a much larger cabover so the queen size bed is not made up and down each day and the mattress is more comfortable than the mattress in our house. The camper is wood framed with a higher insulation value so condensation in cool weather is quite manageable and the noise level during rain is low. There is plenty of storage – all of it easily accessible. The camper also has a full bathroom with a shower – a much-appreciated luxury. With this camper on the Ford F-250 Tremor platform we don’t do hardcore off-road, but the vehicle has the capability to deal with slippery mud and do the soft-core off-road adventuring we are interested in. The whole package has already dealt with hundreds of kilometers of washboard without even developing a new squeak. The build quality was much better than the Four Wheel Camper.
After completing three months in the first phase of our Pan-American journey to the Arctic Ocean and Alaska, we came home more than happy with Griego and Seven. During that trip, we did the Dempster highway to the Arctic Ocean in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. That is 1600 kilometers of washboard gravel and when the rain started pouring down and the road got slippery, Griego and Seven handled it beautifully. We were in Alaska during the rainiest August in 10 years and with the indoor living space of Seven we hardly even noticed. It was also relatively cool while we were in Alaska and the condensation in the camper was manageable.
We have a rig that works very well for us, but now we have discovered that we can’t insure it for the rest of our Pan-American trip. Clements insurance would insure rigs like this before the pandemic, but not since. I have talked to others who have done the trip and they have said it is “big-boys rules”, which means you just take the risk of total loss. We are not prepared to risk that much, so we put together a lower-risk solution.
For the Pan-American trip from Mexico to Argentina, we intend to stay in Airbnb’s most of the time instead of camping. Amazingly, with the savings on insurance costs and the savings in gas consumption, we can do that for almost the same cost as our original plan to camp in Griego and Seven. Additionally, this rig actually meets all of our criteria. Airbnb’s are going to provide lots of indoor living space and a bathroom and Lucy provides the ground clearance and four-wheel drive. Lucy is a 2013 Jeep, so the cost fits our budget and we can risk an uninsured loss. We have outfitted Lucy with a kitchen and rooftop tent for a very limited amount of camping. The major components we integrated into Lucy are:
- Dometic CFX3 55-liter fridge with ice maker
- Bluetti EB55 Portable Power Station
- Frontrunner Wolf Packs for storage
- Frontrunner fridge slide-out
- Frontrunner tailgate table
- Lifesaver Jerry Can for water filtration
- Frontrunner Slimline II roof rack
- Treeline Outdoors Joshua rooftop tent
- Moonshade awning
- Thetford Porta Potti 135 with Pop-up bathroom tent
- SIMO Solis Lite WIFI Mobile Hotspot
- Garmin Overlander navigation plus Garmin BC-30 backup camera
- Locking fuel cap, Jeep JK hood lock, Lock Nuts for spare tire
- VIOFO A119 V3 Dash Cam
- Jeep JK roll bar fire extinguisher
- Alvantor Pop-up Bug-screen tent
- ARB Tred Pro traction boards
This has turned out to be a compact and comfortable traveling platform. The camping capability allows us to get remote when we want to, and you can’t beat the comfort of Airbnb’s the rest of the time. Lucy is no bigger than the average car so she is very convenient on the village roads or navigating a city. She is also very capable off-road so we can cross rivers and tackle very rough roads, even during a tropical storm. Don’t get me wrong, you can do the Pan-American in a Toyota Yaris, some people have, but for the extra level of adventure we are looking for, Lucy works well.