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DIY Overlanding: Dan Cressall Built His 2008 Dodge Ram for Overlanding—Or Did Overlanding Build His Ram?

Posted in Overland Adventure: 2019 on August 13, 2019
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Contributors: Jered KorfhageFour Wheeler Staff

Young Dan Cressall's father regaled him with stories about taking his early Ford Bronco off-road through mountain trails, so as a teen, Dan looked to his own two-by Toyota pickup to satisfy the same growing wanderlust. Yet he'd learn quickly that he'd need a 4x4 to take him farther down the trails less traveled.

But that's not the overlanding story to tell.

Adult Dan Cressall had a wife, two young daughters, and, finally, a 4x4—first, a rusted-out Chevy Blazer, and then a rusted-out Toyota truck. He knew what he really needed next: a rock buggy. He would build it himself, collecting parts for years, trading labor for parts he couldn't afford, and buying basic fabrication tools. Once completed, he bought a brand-new '08 Dodge Ram to tow the two-seater buggy, as he and his family traversed the western U.S. looking for harder and harder trails to tackle. The buggy even saw some success in the UROC circuit.

But that's only part of the overlanding story to tell.

On one of these trips, Dan and daughter Aspen were on the sand dunes when they experienced a crash while in the buggy—hitting hard, nose-first. The driver-side front shock and frame collapsed. Dan's face slammed into the steering wheel; Aspen hit her neck and throat on the center-mounted cutting-brake handles and her head on the seatback. They rushed her to the hospital, where she was then airlifted to another hospital with a broken neck and crushed larynx. A tracheotomy tube was inserted to assist with breathing, and over the next nine months there were countless surgeries, yet she was making a full recovery. But in a heartbreaking turn of events, Aspen passed away within 24 hours of the tracheal tube being removed—the day after she had finally come back home.

Pop the hood and you'll find a Hemi—and not much else. When Dan bought the truck, it came with a lifetime powertrain warranty, and that's why he's kept things mostly stock. (He's on his second transmission.) But you will spot an alternator from one of those Ram 2500s with the snowplow prep package and Optima YellowTop handling battery duty. Exhaust is taken care of by Flowmaster. "As much as I would like a new Power Wagon, I will keep this truck for the foreseeable future because it, short of being totaled, will never die."

That is the start of this overlanding story to tell.

"We have always enjoyed the outdoors and camping, but we kicked it up a few notches after the family tragedy. We needed a place to escape, cope, and disconnect from the outside world, and connect with one another," explained Dan's wife, Brooke. Said Dan: "My beautiful, smart, and perfect daughter is gone, and with her my search for more and more difficult trails and obstacles. I've reverted back to exploring old dirt roads and moderate trails in an effort to get away from the world and enjoy time with my family and a few close friends."

The Cressalls got rid of the buggy and began using their Ram to explore the mountains and deserts of their home state of Utah, camping where no fifth-wheel trailer could be found. Their overlanding life became an extension of their home life, and it continues that way today. "We cook the same foods, sleep on the same sheets and pillows, and enjoy the same activities we would at home." They average 100 nights per year in their tent. That required the Ram—which Dan calls not particularly fancy or photogenic—to have all the creature comforts and functionality of home and the necessary self-sufficiency when away from it all.

We met Dan, Brooke, and daughter Dana on our 2019 Four Wheeler Overland Adventure and encountered a truck thoughtfully and strategically put together, with engineering ingenuity not found on other overlanding vehicles. Those details are distinctly Dan's signature, perfectly matched to the distinctly Dan life philosophies. Like, "Any activity, where the only barrier to entry is money, is boring" and "I really dislike the term 'build.' As in, 'my current build' or 'my next build.' It seems to imply there is a beginning and an end. My truck is continually evolving to meet my continually evolving needs."

The Dan-built tent/bed rack has its own deep-cycle battery that's charged from the alternator, fully charged starting battery, and 160-watt solar panel on the roof of the cab. The rack battery runs the rack's water pump, lights, USB ports, and stereo. "The challenge with the wiring was with the three separate gauges—I have to monitor the output of the solar panel, charge rate to the battery, and discharge rate from the battery. One lesson here is always plan and add additional wire and fuses for future changes/additions."

He also dislikes "off-the-shelf overland builds" and products that are impractical for real camp living. "For instance, you'll see a rooftop tent open to the passenger side of a truck and an awning open to the driver side, but all the cooking and living and working at camp happens at the tailgate, the place where you'd actually want and could use an awning." (Yes, he creatively and simply solved that issue with his own awning.) He also believes that if you can't find what you need, you should build it. In the case of the Ram, not much can go wrong that he can't fix himself. "It's mine, and it's unique to me." And the modifications are uniquely Dan.

If you see the Cressalls' overlanding truck and become inspired, don't rush to duplicate it. Instead, follow another chapter of Dan's "odd thoughts and philosophies" book: "Skip everything but gas and just go. You'll figure out what it is you need and what you don't, then buy more gas and go again. The idea that you can't 'overland' until you have some piece of gear or are 100 percent prepared for any situation is just silly and bad advice. Go, get out there, and make the mountains and desert part of your life."

The still-factory frontend would be Dan's Achilles' heel. "The design is somewhat small and weak, but, more importantly, the housing is aluminum. I have a lot of ideas of how to address this; however, due to my lifetime powertrain warranty, I can't go all wild replacing components." So, he relies mainly on his keen driving skills to avoid potential bashings. Helping with off-road comfort are Rancho shocks in front and Bilsteins at the rear. (P.S. Daughter Dana was named after the axle brand, and she will tell you her middle name is "60.")
The interior is stock, except for gauges to monitor air-tank pressure and auxiliary battery voltage.
Dan runs 37x12.50R17 BFGoodrich T/A KM3 Mud-Terrains around black steel 17x9 wheels. He can't remember who made the rims—anyone recognize them? Power Stop is on brake duty.
The Dodge has Olympus Offroad foglights and also driving lights that Dan picked up on Amazon. A Warn Zeon winch and Factor 55 UltraHooks assist in recovery efforts (including when he volunteers with several off-road recovery groups). Olympus and Amazon also are the sources for the truck's rear chase/dust lighting.
One of the tent/bed rack redesigns had a storage theme. "I built my first 'stereo box,' a wooden box that hung off the rack under the tent, which also gave me a location to mount a cheap Walmart car stereo and speakers for music at camp. There was still room, so I also added a volt gauge to keep tabs on the second battery and solar panel charging."
The tent/bed rack doesn't actually rest on the bedsides; it's its own complete structure, with everything that's attached moving in and out of the rack as one unit, held in place with turnbuckles. You can also get a good look at Dan's craftsmanship here. The rack's lower structure (everything below the bedrails) is 1-inch square tubing that's 0.120-inch thick. For the upper structure, he used 1 5/8-inch mild-steel, also 0.120-inch thickness. Along the sides is 2-inch angle iron.
"I really enjoy the process of designing and creating parts that are unique to me and my truck and fit a specific need." Another example of that: Dan needed his awning to deploy at the back of the truck where the stove and fridge were and where everyone hangs out, so he customized the mounting brackets; mounts are on the side of the rack for storage/driving and at the back of the rack to relocate the awning to the rear when at camp.

 

Plumbing and Wiring—Pros and Woes
"The wiring of the rack was reasonably straightforward kinda. I used a Blue Sea Systems 12-circuit fuse block and separate relays to control most accessories. The lights are all on contact switches, so when I open the side panel or the stereo drawer, the lights come on."

"The plumbing of the rack is kinda the opposite of the wiring. It is ridiculously complex. But it works. I have the 15-gallon water tank filled via an RV water fill port with any garden hose. If I close a valve, instead of filling the tank, the water fill port will then pressurize the system and bypass the tank and pump. That way, I can operate on city water (that's RV speak for just having a hose connected to the side) or off the tank and pump. From there water splits to the cold water at the faucet and to the water heater, then to the hot side of the water faucet. Then through a series of one-way check valves and a separate ball valve, I can recirculate the water from the tank to the water heater and back to the tank. This warms the entire tank to a uniform temperature for showers. The shower head connects via a quick connect near the water fill port. The faucet sits on the fridge slide and the sink slides out from under the fridge slide on its own slide. Lessons here were that SharkBite fittings and PEX are expensive, but worth it for their reusability and reliability."

 

At a Glance
Vehicle: '08 Dodge Ram
Owners: Dan and Brooke Cressall
Stomping grounds: Logan, Utah
Build time: 10 years
Drivetrain
Engine: Hemi 5.7L V-8
Transmission: 545RFE five-speed auto
Transfer case: NV241D
Low range ratio: 2.72:1
Crawl ratio: 32.0:1
Front axle/differential: Chrysler 8.25 3.92 gears/open
Rear axle/differential: Chrysler 9.25, 3.92 gears/Eaton Detroit Locker
Suspension
Front: Independent, fabricated upper A-arms, Rancho shocks
Rear: Leaf springs, airbags, air bumps, Bilstein shocks
Tires/Wheels
Tires: 37x12.50R17 BFGoodrich T/A KM3 Mud-Terrain
Wheels: 17x8 black steel
Miscellaneous
Lighting: Driving lights from Amazon, Olympus Offroad dust lights and foglights,
Cool stuff: Flowmaster exhaust, 160-watt roof solar panel, Power Stop brakes, Canyon Cooler cooler, hitch, Warn winch, Factor 55 towhook, standard and kinetic straps, soft shackles, Hi-Lift jack, 15-gallon onboard water tank, hot/cold running water with sink, ARB Fridge Freezer, rooftop tent and awning, Camp Chef oven, onboard air with 4-gal tank, CB and ham radios, Blue Sea Systems fuse block, Painless Wiring dual-battery controller, Extreme Outback Products Magnum air compressor with 2-gal tank, homemade bed rack with storage

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