About a year ago I went on an elk hunting trip near Mt. Rainier in Washington State. Me and three close friends rode dirt bikes up a washed out forest service road for about ten miles, hiked another five, and made a base camp for a week-long pursuit of the elusive Roosevelt Elk that are native to the area. Our hunting trip not only proved to be unsuccessful, but we were also in for a nasty surprise when we returned to our vehicles.
As we pulled up to our vehicles I noticed something strange. My truck looked different. The Tepui rooftop tent and Thule rack were missing as was my motorcycle trailer. The reality of the situation sunk in. Someone had taken a sawzall to my rack and stolen my tent and trailer. Adding insult to injury my windows were smashed in and everything in my truck was gone, even the rest of my Dalmore 18 yr Scotch. Damn. I ended up being lucky compared to the rest of the trucks at the trailhead. Their tires were slashed along with the windows broken. I could at least drive home to my family that day. But what about the motorcycles? How would we get them back without a trailer? It turns out you can put dirt bikes in the bed of a truck if you don't have a tent in the way. I guess there's a silver lining in every situation.
I returned home and went back to my day job as the owner and lead product designer for Rhino Camera Gear. We make tools for filmmakers to get more creative shots. If you've ever seen a behind the scenes of a Hollywood movie and seen a guy pushing another guy on a train-track with a camera on it; we make those but just a lot smaller. I've been running this business for over 12 years and have gained a crazy amount of experience in product design, sourcing, and manufacturing ever since I paid a high school kid $20 to teach me CAD so long ago. As a company we've had a lot of wins. We've raised over $1M on Kickstarter crowdfunding our products with early adopters who want to experience the highs and lows of startups alongside founders. We got a product into thirty two Apple retail stores. We have over 40 stores that carry our products all over the world.
I have a confession to make though. I don't really care about filmmaking. Don't get me wrong, I care deeply about our customers and their experience with our products but I'm not a filmmaker. I'm an explorer. I'll never forget what a friend said when he saw all the gear in my garage for the first time, "Bro, you're an adventurer!" Motorsports, hiking, surfing, rappelling, spearfishing, fly fishing, backpacking, hunting, you name it. Adventures are the common thread that knits the rest of life's experiences together. I've been blessed to experience some amazing adventures all over the world creating content for Rhino. There's nothing better than sitting around a fire with close friends and some beer recalling all of the close calls and crazy things we've done. I wouldn't trade them for the world.
Going back to my truck though. There's a big problem. I still have no tent and summer is coming. You see my tent was my haven. Every year I spend dozens of nights camping out on lonely peaks or by still lakes anticipating the morning catch. A roof top tent is so functional. I can take one of my three kids on quick overnight adventures creating beautiful memories dreaming about the future and where their lives will take them. What could replace that?
I was on one of my afternoon adventures sitting alongside the Icicle River in Leavenworth, Washington about 45 minutes from my home in Wenatchee. This is another one of my havens. It was January and I was sitting perfectly content in the middle of a snow storm shielded by a cave and warmed by a small fire. I'm about 30 ft from the frozen-over river and maybe 200 ft from the road. I see a Toyota Tacoma pull up alongside the road with a camper shell on it that partially hangs over the cab with a hinge on the front. He jumps on his tailgate and opens up the shell to reveal a tent and sleeping platform.
My mind went into a frenzy. That was a brilliant idea and so much better than a roof top tent. You could actually stand up in the bed of your truck and have room to cook or prep gear instead of being stuck laying down in a small space. I put out my fire and trudged through the snow back towards my truck. I had to find out more about these campers. After doing some research I was a little disheartened. These "wedge" style campers were way out of my price range. They cost more than $10K and you had to drive to their location to get it installed. What could be done? My heart raced a little at the daunting challenge I knew I had to take on. I'd try to make one myself that cost half the price and we'd ship directly to customers. Game on.
Over the next few months, my mind was completely consumed with designing a way to manufacture a camper for half the price of the competition without sacrificing quality or features. Product design is very much an iterative process. Design it, stare at your CAD and find the flaws, then completely redesign it. My first design had no weather sealing and I realized that when the side access doors were opened, water would pour into the bed if it rained. This led to a simple design that uses the main support beam as one half of the hinge that both reduces part count and keeps the water out. As Elon Musk says, "No part is a better part." After hearing about the nightmares of a well known company having to recall campers for faulty hinges, latches, and tents delaminating, I had to get this thing right. After three or four rounds of redesigning the camper, I couldn't think of anything else to change. That's when you know you're ready to prototype and test your design. I put together the "spec packs" of how to make each part and sent them to various suppliers we've worked with at Rhino and the waiting began. In the meantime, I started working on all of the accessories for the system. I love it when a company thinks through the user experience for a customer. I wanted to do the same and address five categories: tent & shelter, sleep & mattress, lighting, cooking, gear organization. I might not have complete solutions for these categories yet but the goal is to build the company into an outfitter that can address problems in each area and provide an integrated experience that is a joy to use in the wilderness.
I was almost afraid for the parts to arrive. What if I messed something up that I couldn't fix? What if the design just didn't work or wasn't strong enough? I started cutting the large aluminum extrusions to the correct length on a basic chop saw with a carbide blade. The design I came up with uses custom designed extrusions that are bolted together to create an ultra rigid frame. Then, pre-finished aluminum composite panels are bonded to the frame to create a waterproof lightweight structure. This method of construction removes any bending, welding, or finishing which can easily drive up the cost of a product. I drilled the holes in the extrusions that would be used to bolt the frame together. Better get this right. After holding my breath for most of the day, I bolted the frame together and lifted it on my truck with a friend. It fit. It actually fit. I still had a lot of work to do but I had basic proof of concept.
The next step was to build up the roof and install the side and rear access doors. The only problem is that the hole in the main extrusion was made out of spec and was too small for the custom hinge to slide into place. If I couldn't get that working, it'd be game over for the entire prototype. I worked with a local machine shop and created a custom five foot long reamer to make the hole slightly larger so the hinge could fit and rotate properly. My wife and I tackled the actual reaming and had to lever the reamer into the hole so it wouldn't pop out and ruin the hinge. After a few hours of tedious work, the holes were properly sized and the door slid into place. This was the first relief I'd felt in weeks and realized this thing might actually come together. I had hope.
The next couple weeks were a blur fixing small issues and custom fabricating parts until late into the night each day. Finally, I called a couple buddies to come help me lift the camper on my truck. It was actually on there and it looked damn good. I had planned out a two week long road trip to test out the camper and meet with potential customers and installers. The morning I finished the last feature, we headed for Boise to start our trip and film our first walk around video. My good friend Michael was able to join me for the trip of a lifetime.
Our journey took us from Wenatchee, WA to Boise, Salt Lake City, Moab, Denver, Santa Fe, Phoenix, San Diego, Alabama Hills, Big Sur, San Francisco, Redding, and Portland. 4,500 miles of meeting with stoked future customers and amazingly talented overlanding shops building their customers dreams. I'm thankful for all of the feedback we received and the brilliant ideas that were pitched. So many new campfire stories were created along the way.
There's one story in particular that needs a little more detail. It is known as the "event that shall not be named". Also known as Moab. We were driving like a bat out of hell in Onion Creek chasing the last bit of daylight to get some video of setting up the rig. Little did we know, we wouldn't be getting any video that evening and we'd be lucky to make it out without a giant recovery bill. Onion Creek starts off near Fisher Towers and leads up to a giant plateau after driving along a knife edge ridge. We saw some of the day's last light on a bluff at the edge of the plateau. The roads were covered in thick mostly clay mud which made getting up to the bluff almost impossible. We barely reached the top of the hill and realized we were in a pickle. The light was gone and we quickly went into "how do we get out of here safely" mode. I had been flying my drone so I switched spots with Michael and took the wheel of my nearly stock F150 with the exception of a leveling kit and some larger mud tires. I backed up slightly to test the road and started sliding backwards a little. Damn. Let's see what's in front of us. On the other side of the hill was a turn-around not 50 yards away. Without thinking too much about it I started down the backside of the hill towards turn around with Mike spotting me. Immediately, the rear end of my truck started sliding towards the cliff edge of the road. I gave it a little gas to straighten out a little but basically slid down the hill sideways. Definitely one of the biggest butt-pucker moments I've ever experienced. Had I actually looked at the road I would have seen it wasn't just steep but the road was canted towards the cliff. The reality of the moment sank in. There's no way we were getting back up that hill. The hillside offered nothing to hook our winch to and it would be idiotic to try without one given the cant of the road. Our only option was to follow an unknown road until it ended, we got stuck, or we got out.
We installed our chains on our front tires and started our journey. We stayed below the snow line for the first few miles and the mud was treacherous. Eventually, we wrapped around a huge mesa and started gaining elevation. By this time, it was completely dark and the temperature was dropping. At least we had plenty of food and water and a tent on the bed of our truck if we had to sleep out. The mud turned to snow as we bounced over Moab's infamous boulder laden terrain. For the most part the road was no worse than a typical forest service road. That is until we started climbing a steep grade on the north side of the mesa. Basketball size boulders covered by a few inches of fresh snow blocked our path. The only viable option was to "send it" and hope we have enough momentum to carry us over the obstacles. If we slowed down, there was no way we'd have the traction to make it through. I thought we were going to break a chain, blow a tire, or toss the camper off my truck. The trip would be over and I'd have a huge repair bill to cover. After 20 yards of boulders, my truck was still moving, the camper was intact and we continued into the dark unknown.
As we reached the top of the Mesa I checked my elevation on Gaia. Over 8,000ft. Damn that's high. We were over 10 miles away from the ridge we had started on and appeared to be on a giant loop trail called Kokopelli. The moon hadn't risen yet so it was pitch black. We took long exposure photos with our iPhones and we realized we were on the edge of a sheer cliff overlooking the valley below. We drove for a few more hours through deep snow and almost got stuck a few times in deep ruts dug from people with much larger tires than the 33's I have on my truck. At this point our biggest worry was that we'd have to come back down through thick mud and potentially slide off the road into the valley. But, just as quickly as our adventure started, it ended. The snowy road turned to plowed dry pavement at the blink of an eye. The relief in the truck was palpable. We’re going to make it.
After traveling over 4,500 miles we made it home in one piece and the camper is still on my truck in great shape. After Moab and other serious off-roading, we noticed that the camper slid forward about half an inch so I’m going to make the mounting brackets clamp on the bed rail tighter. There are dozens of other small changes we’re making to make the production version even better. The gas struts are going to move to the inside of the main extrude so they don’t interfere with mounting awnings. The Gear Vault shelves are going to fold in half so they don’t get in the way of the bed sliding towards the tailgate if you need more room for your feet. The Rear Rain Guard is going to be redesigned so it will tension the tent fabric to shed rain better. The list goes on.
We’re going to open up orders on Tuesday (it’s Thursday now) and will be offering Lone Peak Camper at $4995 for one week only. After that, the price will rise to $5995. We’re offering three options for delivery. Installation in Wenatchee, WA, Installation in Colorado, New Mexico, and California, and shipping directly to your door. We’ll be offering a suite of accessories like LED lighting, Gear Vault Storage, a Cab Pass Through Window, Grab Handles, Laser Light Bars, Roof Fans, and so much more. We’re focusing on the options that have to ship with the camper first and will release more in the coming months.
We plan to begin production this Spring in Wenatchee, WA and start installations and shipments in June. We have many more truck based solutions in the works like camp kitchens, awnings, and electronics. Lone Peak Camper is just the beginning of our mission to empower people to venture further into the wilderness with more comfort and confidence.