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Mule Expedition Outfitters Builds a Hemi-powered Ram 2500 Tradesman

Baja Runner

Harry WagnerAuthorBrian SumnerPhotography

What is a Baja Runner? Designed to be a rolling showcase of the brands Mule Expedition Outfitters offers and the work the company performs, the Baja Runner started life as a Hemi-powered Ram 2500 Tradesman and was outfitted with a Norweld tray bed, Four Wheel Campers Hawk pop-up camper, AEV suspension, bumpers, and wheels, 40-inch Yokohama tires, and a whole bunch of overlanding friendly kit. No one thought it was a good idea for us to take the Mule Expedition Outfitters' Baja Runner down Lippincott Mine Trail in Death Valley, which is exactly what motivated us to do it. We are getting ahead of ourselves though. First, a little more on the Mule Expedition Outfitters' Baja Runner.

Your first thought might be "A Hemi?!" We will confess that it was our first though, however after driving the Baja Runner we can report that the only drawback to the gasoline engine is the fuel mileage. "We were concerned about the availability of DEF and ULSD fuel in Mexico and further south," Mule's Joe Marshall explained. The truck was fitted with 5.13 Nitro gears and ARB Air Lockers front and rear, keeping the engine in the powerband and providing plenty of power for passing on the freeway.

Joe and his wife Dana brought the Baja Runner down to the SEMA Show to be displayed in Yokohama Tire's booth, but had plans to fly back to Washington. They asked if we were interested in holding on to the truck for a while, which didn't take long to ruminate on. With freelancer, Brian Sumner, in tow, we received the keys on Friday as the show ended and beelined it north out of Vegas, camping at Big Dune that night. Other than trying to reach the latches for the top, the Four Wheel Camper was simple to set up and cozy inside. In a matter of minutes we were out of the elements and enjoying dinner in the camper.

Setting up for the night was a snap. Just unlatch the roof to pop up the top and you are good to go. While the Four Wheel Camper has a propane furnace we only needed it on one night of the trip. The first night at Big Dune was plenty warm inside without the heater.

The next day took us to Ryolite and into Death Valley National Park via Titus Canyon. Being a Saturday, the canyon was full of people and vehicles so we didn't really find the solitude we were looking for. We did, however, meet Owen and Mak in their Toyota Tundra equipped with a similar Norweld tray bed and Hawk camper. The two live out of their truck fulltime, illustrating just how livable this combination can be. From Titus Canyon we headed north to Ubeheebee Crater, Teakettle Junction, and the Racetrack. 40-inch tires may seem like overkill for a vehicle you are taking camping, but when aired down to 20 psi the Yokohama Geolandar XMTs floated over the washboard road like it wasn't even there.

This brings us to Lippincott Mine Road. In a Jeep, going up or down this pass (unlike Titus Canyon, Lippincott is open to two-way traffic) is no big deal. It isn't particularly challenging, but it is narrow and full of switchbacks. Driving a house down the 2,000-foot descent into Saline Valley was recommended, as was previously mentioned, by no one. The road is often washed out there are few places to pass or turn around. What would take an hour in a Wrangler took us four hours, as we stopped at each available turn out to walk ahead, ensure the road was wide enough, and confirm that there was no oncoming traffic. The last thing we wanted to do was to be in a situation where we had to back the Mule Expedition Outfitters' Baja Runner up the narrow shelf road.

Titus Canyon is one of our favorite roads in Death Valley National Park, and it is easily passible in a stock 4x4. Travelling down the trail on a Saturday in November meant that there was plenty of traffic, but the narrow road is one-way-only so we didn't have to worry about passing as the canyon grew narrower towards its western terminus.

At the bottom of Lippincott Pass the color returned to our knuckles, and the rest of the trip was considerably less stressful, though just as enjoyable. We got lost trying to get into Cerro Gordo from Death Valley, stayed at the overland mecca of Alabama Hills for the night, and made our way up the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Range taking dirt roads whenever possible. And that really is the beauty of the Baja Runner. Ghandi said "All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals." The Baja Runner capable enough to go places you would never dream of pulling a camp trailer, but is comfortable enough to spend the night just about anywhere, regardless of what the weather is doing outside. Mule Expedition Outfitters nailed the fundamentals on this truck.

At Teakettle Junction we ran into a bunch of Raptors from the Dirt Days group. They cautioned us to avoid Lippincott Mine Road due to recent washouts and numerous narrow spots. We continued on to the Racetrack though and camped for the night at the top of Lippincott so we could take a look at it for ourselves.
While you can't camp at the Racetrack, there are dispersed camping sites at the dead-end road beyond the playa. We camped there for the night and then returned to the Racetrack in the morning to witness the rocks that move along the frozen ground during high winds.
The Norweld tray bed allows far more interior space than a normal slide-in camper, and also moves the door from the rear to the side to allow for a rear table that folds down into a second bed. The interior of the Four Wheel Camper includes a fridge, stove, and sink, but no toilet. This model does have a hot water heater and outside shower.
No going back now! Actually there was, but our options were either to descend Lippincott Mine Road or backtrack all the way to Teakettle Junction and go south from there. We wanted to avoid doing that, and honestly the challenge was appealing to us.
Lippincott Mine Road drops over 1,500 feet in under five miles, much of it on switchbacks with a lot of exposure to the valley floor below. Brian Sumner did all of the driving of the Baja Runner in this section, he has spent a lot of time on Colorado's shelf roads in the San Juan Range so he is perfectly comfortable in these situations.
Can your house flex like this? The most technical terrain we ran was towards the bottom of Lippincott Mine Road. With coil springs front and rear, AEV Suspension, and 2.5-inch diameter ADS Racing shocks the Baja Runner was stable and sure footed. It is also equipped with ARB Air Lockers front and rear but we never needed them.
Yeah, it is that tight. This was the crux of the trail, and it was after we had almost completed our descent. Was it this tight at the top we likely would have reconsidered running the trail. The passenger side of the truck is difficult to see from the driver's seat, so slow, deliberate driving and a good spotter were necessary to navigate past this washout.
We initially worried that the miles of washboard roads would result in the cabinet drawers of the Four Wheel Camper ending up on the floor when we stopped at the end of each day, but this fear was misplaced. The camper strikes a great balance between being lightweight and robust and never gave us a single issue.
Tight trees were an issue for the large truck and camper combination. The Four Wheel Camper is available with smooth or corrugated sides. The Baja Runner's Hawk camper has smooth sides, or at least had smooth sides before we wedged it between these trees
If you don't go to Alabama Hills, are you even really overlanding? It is easy to see why this destination outside of Lone Pine is so popular. It is both beautiful and easily accessible from Los Angeles. Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48 at 14,505 feet above sea level towers in the background.
While this water crossing wasn't deep enough to require the AEV raised air intake, it was still a lot of fun. The trail crosses Silver Creek a number of times as it descends from the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. The AEV intake isn't only useful for water, it also provides cleaner air to the engine on dirt roads by drawing in air from the top of the windshield.
Mono Lake is a saline lake that at one time was connected to the Great Salt Lake in the Great Basin. It now serves as critical habitat for migratory birds, who feast on the brine shrimp who thrive in the salty waters. The unique chemistry of the lake also results in limestone columns, called tufa, that form when the saline lake waters interact with underground spring water.
We stopped at the California State Park at Bodie, which is an incredibly well-preserved ghost town. It is also fairly crowded since it is easy to access. This mine at Masonic was further off the beaten path and more dangerous, so of course we had to stop and explore! We took dirt roads all the way from Bodie to Masonic and north to Wellington and never saw another person.