The coronavirus has made remote work the norm, and a surge in popularity of outdoor recreation has brought record visitation to the nation’s public lands.
To Sean McLane and Blayne Ferrell, it seemed like the perfect time to launch a dream project of theirs: building and selling vehicles that would be both comfortable to live in and capable on rough roads. They started Mesa Overland Custom 4x4 Campers this spring.
McLane and Ferrell met through a mutual friend while camping and rock climbing in Indian Creek. Ferrell was living in a camper he’d modified and improved, splitting his time between working in Alabama and long climbing trips in Utah. McLane was living in Salt Lake City, coming down to Indian Creek for weekends or a week at a time whenever he could. The two hit it off and met up frequently at “the Creek.”
“He’s got like a ten-rack or a dozen rack,” McLane said, describing Ferrell’s large quantity of climbing equipment. “He’s a gear hound, so he’s good to have around in the Creek.”
“He’s slept on my couch in really bad weather,” Ferrell added, meaning the couch in his camper.
They talked a lot about building off-road capable campers for dedicated outdoor adventurers like themselves. When COVID-19 shifted many office workers to a remote model, McLane and Ferrell figured it was a good time to make it happen. They foresee the shift toward remote work being a lasting cultural change.
“We decided this January to pull the trigger on this,” said McLane. They acquired a shop space in Mack, Colorado, west of Fruita, and outfitted it with everything they would need to build their custom vehicles, including a heavy-duty lift that allows them to modify suspensions on heavy trucks. They found and purchased a couple of old ambulances to start. Right now they’re modifying a 1999 retired ambulance called “The Negotiator.”
“We bought it and kind of shopped it around to some of our friends,” said McLane, “and found a good match with a shorter woman who’s going to be fine standing up in there. It’s not full height inside, so that’s a good fit.”
They’ve put on a new suspension, adding about 5 inches to the vehicle’s height, and cut off the lower section of the body in the back to give it more ground clearance. They’ll put 37-inch tires on it.
“This vehicle should be able to go anywhere your middle-of-the-road Jeep can go—except you can live in it, which is the niche we’re trying to go for,” said McLane.
They’re building the interior to their friend’s specifications.
“This ambulance is going to have an LED fireplace for the ambiance,” said McLane. “She likes to entertain, so that was her request. We were like, ‘OK, we can make that happen.’”
There will also be a skylight, shower, stove, sink, bed, and heater. A block heater will ensure that the diesel engine will start even in very cold weather. The camper will have a 25-gallon fresh water tank and a 10-gallon gray water tank.
“It won’t have a black water tank—we’re recommending a composting toilet,” said McLane. “ We’ve found having a black tank is more of a hassle than its worth.” One reason a tank for sewage waste water is problematic, they said, is that it has to stay heated in the winter, which could require running a generator. The two have found that using pit toilets at campsites or recreation sites, composting toilets, or wag bags is an easier way of dealing with waste, but would build in a black tank on a vehicle if a customer requested it.
Ferrell added a strong recommendation that people empty their gray water into a dump station, rather than on the ground, which is illegal in many areas anyway.
“You can tell popular van camping spots all around the Creek because there’s just brown stains in the dirt,” he said. “It just kind of makes it gnarly.”
The two noted that as “van life” gets more popular, more people are heading outdoors without education in Leave No Trace or outdoor ethics. They expect their vehicles will be most appealing to experienced outdoor recreators who want to get to less popular areas. The campers will allow people to be more contained and have less impact while camping, McLane said, as well as enable those who want to get away from the increasing crowds to access quieter places down rougher roads.
The Negotiator will cost upwards of $80,000 when complete. This build will take about three months, McLane estimates, but once they’re in a groove, he anticipates each build-out will take about two months.
Right now Mesa Overland is just McLane and Ferrell and one other employee, plus Floyd the dog, who supposedly works “security.” As they expand, the two plan on getting their auto-dealer’s license, which will allow them to offer financing options on their vehicles and shop at government vehicle auctions. They eventually want to build their own reproducible truck platforms in-house.
McLane holds an MBA and is heading up the business side of things: “...the accounting, marketing, financing, licensing, legal... trying to clear as much space as possible for him to just build stuff and design stuff,” he said, referring to Ferrell, who’s the expert mechanic.
Ferrell said he’s always loved dreaming up and building vehicles. He was a mechanic with BMW for 13 years and also worked at Mercedes and in a 4x4 shop. He also taught himself how to weld, and drastically modified his own camper, which he lived out of for three years.
“If it’s metal, that’s up my alley,” he said.
McLane and Ferrell recognize the sometimes bizarre niche they’re in: some potential buyers are interested in a custom camper as a luxury recreational item, while for others, it may be simply the most affordable way to support a lifestyle devoted to the outdoors. For some, it’s a “second home;” for others, it’s an affordable primary residence. It may be a viable option at a time when housing shortages have prompted cities like Crested Butte, Colorado to allow RVs to temporarily be used as workforce housing. Moab is considering adopting a similar temporary ordinance to mitigate the pressing housing shortage.
“Housing is ridiculous,” said McLane. “Prices have far outpaced wage growth… ‘van life’ has, for a lot of people, been how they get a home because it’s more affordable than buying an actual home. They choose it for the lifestyle as well, but some of it is affordability and accessibility.”
However, their target buyer is someone who wants to get into remote areas and experience the wilderness. For Ferrell, his camper allowed him to isolate during the most uncertain times of the pandemic. He remembers seeing camping areas packed with camper vans during the first weeks of the COVID-19 shut-downs. He was living in his camper full-time, and was grateful that it was able to get to an isolated spot.
“There was probably two months where I might have seen one other person and had interaction,” he said of that time. “It’s nice to have options.”