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Verne & Trent’s Excellent Towventure

Posted in Features on August 9, 2018
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Photographers: Verne SimonsTrenton McGee

Most gearheads know that there’s something inexplicably enticing about a long road trip. Though some people might dread even the thought of driving across the country, most of us look forward to the challenge of a long journey. It’s equal parts a reliability test for your vehicle and an endurance test for yourself.

The constant change of scenery and movement satisfies the wanderlust that stirs within many of us. Kerouac was definitely on to something. Climbing into an aluminum tube may get you to the opposite coast a lot quicker than driving, but the airline industry has succeeded in making flying about as much fun as having teeth pulled (and only slightly less painful). So when Editor Christian Hazel decreed that the 2018 Ultimate Adventure would take place about as far away in the lower 48 as you can get from my home and Tech Editor Verne Simons’ home in Arizona, any moans about distance were tempered by the prospect of two buddies hanging out for multiple days, pigging out on crappy fast food, and drinking gallons of caffeine. And all of it while bench racing and solving the world’s problems while following the black ribbon from one corner of the country to the other and back again. It’s as much about the journey as the destination. This is the story of two chuckleheads venturing all the way across the country just to drive and live out of 4x4s for a week.

Of course, there was plenty to do in advance. Simons had the official vehicle of UA 2018 to build, the Derange Rover, and I had already spent a bunch of time going back and forth in an aluminum tube planning and prerunning the route for said event. There was talk of driving the Range Rover and my TJ buggy all the way to Maine, but that was shelved for several reasons. The Range Rover would be a fresh build, the buggy was showing its age, and stopping for fuel every 150-180 miles would nearly double the travel time on an already tight schedule. Showing up late was not an option; both had to be there on time and ready to go on check-in day.

Trailering was the quickest and most reliable option. Plus, towing both rigs meant sharing driving duties as well as cutting costs. The problem was that there was no two-car trailer, and neither Simons nor I owned anything we trusted enough to drag one vehicle across the country, let alone two. Seeing as how Cummins was an official sponsor of the UA and the official project vehicle was powered by an R2.8, an idea was hatched to get something Cummins-powered for the long haul. A few emails convinced the folks at Ram to loan us a brand new 6.7L Cummins-powered 4x4 dualie for nearly six weeks for our cross-country odyssey. While we were up front about how many miles we were going to put on the truck, we may or may not have mentioned that we would basically be living out of the thing for the better part of two weeks.

Our tow rig was a 2018 Ram Longhorn 3500 4x4 dualie loaded with every option you could think of, from heated and cooled leather seats to an AC power outlet and a sunroof. Not a single options box was left unchecked. It had a sticker that topped $80,000 to match. A true cowboy Cadillac, the truck pulled like a freight train and stopped with authority. With 370 hp and 930 lb-ft on tap, our guesstimated trailer weight of 11,500 pounds barely gave the 6.7L Cummins cause to work.

With the truck secured, something had to be done about a trailer. We’ve talked for several years about buying a trailer that could haul two vehicles. Unable to find a suitable one to borrow or rent, we found the nearly perfect 14,000-pound GVW trailer brand new on a dealer lot—five hours away near Los Angeles. It was a mad dash to get everything finished and get on the road, but somehow we pulled it off. Read on to hear the rest of the story of the alternate adventure. If you haven’t already, use the hashtag #UA2018 to get the full story on Ultimate Adventure 2018.

We explored several options on a trailer that would haul two rigs, but nothing we could borrow or rent really hit the spot. Verne Simons and I had been talking about getting a two-car trailer for a few years, and now seemed as good a time as any. A couple of days after we took delivery of the truck, I took a test run over to L.A. to pick up a new trailer that was given to us in exchange for a large collection of hundred-dollar bills. Rated at 14,000 pounds and 30 feet long, the trailer should haul just about anything we want for a long time to come. We chose a bumper pull for ride quality and also versatility, as not every truck has a gooseneck hitch.
No matter how early you start or how much planning takes place, vehicle builds always seem to come down to the wire. It was a hard thrash to get it together in time, but Simons pulled it off despite having to pull the fuel tank because of a massive leak on the morning we were supposed to leave. Despite the last-minute thrashing and setbacks, we actually left town within six hours of our target.
Since there were zero miles on the Rover, we used leaving town as an opportunity to shake down the truck. Simons ran about 70 miles, including a sustained 6- to 7-percent grade up to Sunset Point. There were no plans to turn around and fix any problems; instead, the thought process was that we’d know what we had to work on once we got to Pennsylvania. Other than the toe being way out, the test drive was amazingly successful.
With a brand new truck and trailer, and only guesses about the weight of the 4x4s, loading the trailer was a crapshoot. This was our initial setup, which was not at all right. We shifted both vehicles forward a couple of feet to add some tongue weight, and it was much better. It was then we discovered that the Ram was equipped with auto-leveling airbags. They worked flawlessly, but there was no pressure gauge. The nerd in us really wished there was a way of knowing how much pressure was in the bags.
Six hours behind schedule, we pushed hard the first day and drove all night, taking turns driving and napping. The morning of our second day on the road it started raining, and it didn’t really stop until a couple of hours before our destination in Pennsylvania. Everything about this truck is well suited to long-distance travel, from the comfortable seats to the excellent sound, climate, and navigation systems. Our only complaints were that there should be a way to allow passengers to operate the navigation while moving, and there should be a pause function so she’s not screaming at you every time you pull off to get fuel.
We weren’t expecting stellar mileage since we were towing an estimated 11,500 pounds, but we were hoping for at least 10.0 mpg, and anything above that would be impressive. We didn’t get anywhere close to that. While we didn’t keep meticulous fuel economy records, we averaged 8.2 to 8.6 mpg, and at times saw it dip into the sevens. Granted, that was also averaging 70 to 75 mph, which the truck sustained without even breathing hard. But it was definitely thirsty.
We also went through a lot of DEF, to the tune of about 2 1/2 gallons a day. Believe what you want, but there’s no way you’re ever going to convince us that a corrosive substance delivered in a plastic jug and nozzle within a cardboard box is somehow safer and better for the environment. The people who believe that are probably the same ones that believe there are zero-emission vehicles.
The Ram came equipped with 235/80R17 Nexen Roadian AT tires wrapped around some fairly nice aluminum wheels. The tires proved to be quiet and surefooted on both dry and wet pavement, but they did noticeably wear over our 5,000-mile journey. It’s not an off-road tire, but then again this isn’t an off-road truck.
Our destination for the Ram was Fred Williams’ parents’ farm in Pennsylvania. We met up with a few Ultimate Adventure cronies there, and then we caravanned to the start of the event in Maine, leaving the Ram and trailer at the farm. After the UA, we left the whole show in Pennsylvania and flew home for a couple of weeks to rest and recuperate from a solid month of hard thrashing and late nights. We also swapped the Rover and the buggy on the trailer, which made the trailer track even better. We came back to everything exactly how we left it, just with more bird poop and cobwebs. Thanks again for letting us devalue your yard, Tom and Tiz Williams!
Our original plan was to go to an event in Pennsylvania and then beat feet for home, but the event kind of fell through, so we decided to head south then west. But deadlines don’t stop just because you’re on the road. Both of us used the Ram as a mobile office when we weren’t driving, taking advantage of the truck’s Wi-Fi hotspot to answer emails, file stories, and generally remain productive. Having an AC power outlet was awesome. We used it constantly to power both our laptops and to charge batteries for cordless tools.
With the Pennsylvania event a bust, we decided to surprise our buddies in Alabama. Fred Williams and Dave Chappelle were at UA crony Keith Bailey’s shop (Off -Road Connection) shooting an episode of Dirt Every Day. We decided to crash their party. We spent a couple days helping them thrash on the Rock Viper and generally hanging out and enjoying Southern hospitality. We’re not sure it’s possible to have more fun than we did, and there is no equal in the world to Southern hospitality.
It was hard leaving our buddies in Alabama, but we really did need to get home at some point in order to stay married to our respective spouses. However, Google revealed that there was one more feasible stop to make that was only slightly out of the way. In a previous career path I’d spent a bunch of time at the Hot Spring Off-Road Vehicle Park (orvpark.com) but hadn’t been back in nearly a decade. Simons had never been. Plus, when would we have our West Coast rigs in Arkansas again?
It turns out the Range Rover’s steering woes from the UA didn’t magically heal themselves while the vehicle rode on the trailer. It was nearly impossible to steer in four-wheel drive. After checking out a couple of trails we reluctantly decided to park it and continue exploring in the buggy.
The Ultimate Adventure came to Hot Springs in 2003, when the park had just cut a new trail that had never been run. The UA ran the trail, and the park named it in honor of the occasion. We couldn’t very well not run it! It was surprising how little the trail had changed, and the park has made impressive improvements in a decade.
As much fun as the Hot Springs park was (you should definitely check it out), the time had come to point the Ram west and make the final push towards home. The navigation took us on an incredibly twisty back way to I-40, and it was surprising how well the Ram handled the corners despite the fully loaded trailer. If there was one place where a gooseneck would have clearly excelled over a bumper pull, it was here. The trailer (and the truck) were flawless.
No long-distance trip with a trailer is complete without a blown tire. A kind fellow driver alerted us that a tire was flat on the trailer, so we pulled over to investigate in what turned out to be the worst area of Oklahoma City. We were surprised that the cheap knockoff “Good-Ride” tires had lasted as long as they had. But it turned out a cracked wheel was the culprit, not the tire. There had been no curb checking or anything other than a few potholes, so we can only guess it was a flaw in the wheel itself. We picked up a new spare tire and wheel the next day.
There comes a tipping point in any road trip where exhaustion, boredom, and constant motion combine to make people a little slap happy. This photo was taken late in the trip and pretty much epitomizes that. Still, road tripping with your best buddy to do dumb stuff with 4x4s is pretty darn fun and way more interesting than crossing the country in some sort of innocuous suppository-shaped econobox.

Quick Trailer Tips

When trailering across the country, it’s important to check your equipment at every stop. We always put eyes on the hitch and electrical plug, test the tension on the straps, and do a full walkaround checking the tires and wheel bearings each time we fill up the truck. We have found countless issues before they came full blown problems during these inspections, and addressing a problem is a lot easier at a gas station than on the shoulder of the interstate.

We always put a hand on all of the bearing hubs and the tires on the trailer during every gas stop. They’ll usually feel warm and even downright hot when it’s warm out, but the important thing is that they should all feel about the same. A hot tire will be a low tire or one that’s about to come apart, while a hot bearing could indicate a wheel bearing or brake problem. It’s also not a terrible idea to check the lug nuts periodically, especially when the trailer is new.
Always check the tension on the straps. They will nearly always be loose at the first stop after you’ve loaded the vehicles, and in our case we had to tighten them multiple times. This was probably because we were sharing an anchor between the two vehicles, which is less than ideal. We plan to put another pair of anchors in the middle of the trailer to avoid this in the future. Always invest in a good set of tie-downs, avoid the cheap off-brand ones at all costs, and always use four separate straps on a vehicle. We have a set of Mac’s Tie Downs that are nearly 10 years old and are still serving us well. Note that the Mac’s doesn’t recommend crossing the straps as shown here, but it was the best option for the anchors on the trailer and vehicles.

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