Posted July 4, 2020 in Adventure Journals by Jim Markel
The Minister of Information for D.O.R.A. (the Department Of Redoxx Affairs) loves his 2001 Dodge Ram Van 2500 Roadtrek 170 Popular. Originally purchased new by his father to travel to his home state of Maine, the Minister bought the Roadtrek from his mom after his dad passed in 2009. The Roadtrek, nick-named SCIENCE for the vanity plates his father registered it with. It’s seen road trips to Maine six times, to Canada the same, to Burning Man four times, and all around Montana’s Big Sky Country several summers, including a fun "Brewery Tour" in 2016.
Here’s the Minister to report about his Roadtrek van life in the Beartooth mountains south of Billings. Included are recommended upgrades to the Raodtrek 170 Popular. Plus the best gear to pack while RV campervan exploring.
Having been mothballed since 2017 while I took care of my aging mother, the Roadtrek has been pulled from semi-retirement. It is ready for road trips and camp-outs once again.
I really enjoy my Roadtrek 170 Popular, it’s the ideal size for a bachelor like me, or romantic couple, like my parents were. The size is just right. It’s easy to park, easy to drive in heavy traffic, with plenty of passing power, and outstanding gas mileage for an RV (averages about 14mpg but I’ve got as high as 17mpg). This Roadtrek has seen it’s share of upgrades and improvements during my ownership.
First thing to go bye-bye was the inefficient radiator. My 2010 trip to Burning Man caked the original radiator with a solid block of playa dust. While the new blower is a bit noisier, it keeps the powerful Dodge Magnum engine cool.
When Roadtrek purchased a Dodge Ram Van 2500 fleet for development of the camper-van, they also upgraded the engine with a new higher horsepower crankshaft. This is a real horsepower upgrade to the famous 390 cubic-inch Dodge Magnum engine, not just some cheesy add-ons. They were serious about getting passing power, and they got it. I have "BLAST PAST" passing power. I wish I could see the faces of the drivers I’ve blown by.
Next up – the dreadful original propane refrigerator. I pulled this worthless POS out of the cabinet and replaced it with an efficient top-loading AC/DC refrigerator, It’s handily located where the third seat used to be, by the side egress doors.
Now I can access the refrigerator from outdoors when I’m setting up camp. I no longer have to worry about remembering to switch it from DC current while driving, to propane power while parked. Just monitor the battery, easy enough on the access panel by the side doors, and fire up the generator if the charge gets low.
I filled the gap where the old refrigerator used to be with a lucky find at the local Billings Restore used furniture warehouse… A three drawer chest of drawers. It fit perfectly with drawers that are self-locking. Even the oak finish is an exact match. Now there is a place for my everyday clothes that isn’t an awkward hard-to-access cabinet. I can sit on the edge of the bed and poke through the drawers. Nice!
I have added:
These upgrades greatly enhanced the usability and comfort of this handsome and efficient utilitarian camper van.
One of the few things my father didn’t like about the Roadtrek was the odd sudden lane drifting. This annoyance would require a small reaction jerk to the steering wheel by the driver to stay on track. This made driving the Roadtrek a chore. Dad was having to pay attention 100% of the time. Oddly, the solution was replacing the front shocks with high quality, fast-reacting Bilstein shocks. My mechanic said "These shocks are 100 times better than the stock shocks." Once I got on the highway I was amazed that the new shocks removed 90% of the drifting problem.
I was puzzling over why this resolved the issue that had plagued my father. He had it aligned a few times to no avail. I determined that the shocks ability to respond more quickly resulted in fewer broad slower movements of the front suspension that required "soft jerking" the steering to keep in the lane. Whatever the reasons, I’m sure tickled this major driving annoyance is gone.
Eventually, I’d like to get a flip-out flat screen TV with DVD, new Bilstein shocks in the back, a newer, even more efficient refrigerator, a high arch waterfall faucet, a new shower sprayer, an efficient air intake system to improve engine airflow, and maybe a cool wrap, like a "classic woody wagon" or bad-ass armored truck?
However living here in short-summer-season Montana, I’ll have to save up for those upgrades. It’s costly just to maintain an RV, even a simple camper van like my Roadtrek. Case in point:
Pulling the Roadtrek from retirement meant testing all the systems to see if they still worked after three years in moth-ball mode. This included testing the water pump. I flipped the pump switch on, ran the sink faucet, it works. Then I opened the bathroom stall and tested the toilet, it flushes.
Then I reached up to the shower faucet and turned the knob. A blast of pink alcohol-laced water shot into my eyes! Cursing I slammed the door shut, fumbled blindly for the pump off switch, and sat down with my eyes stinging like hell.
The plastic encasement on the faucet had worn out and cracked, causing the water to squirt out. After dismantling the housing that encases the faucet, I found a new faucet locally and replaced it.
For the most part the Roadtrek is well constructed. My Dad paid nearly $75,000 (including interest, which was astronomical) for it. So they are not exactly affordable. Despite the excellent construction and thoughtful performance, Roadtrek took shortcuts with the appliance quality, or lack of it.
I’ve replaced the stove overhead fan, the shower faucet, the refrigerator, the sink and toilet water pump, and the overhead air conditioner.
Come to find out, I need to replace the black water storage tank, and the hot water tank. Groan, in due time.
When I lived in Billings I would take off every other weekend during the summer and fall and drive south to Red Lodge. After a visit at the excellent Red Lodge Ales brewery located just outside of town I’d head for the hills. I like to test restaurants by ordering my favorite sandwich, the Reuben. Red Lodge Ales makes an awesome Reuben.
Hills in Montana are "mountains" in other states. If you keep driving south you eventually get to the most beautiful high mountain pass in North America, the Beartooth Pass. However, this steep switchback climb is quite a grinder on the old Roadtrek, especially with a full load of 20 gallons of fresh water and a full tank of gas.
I usually resort to finding a campground in the valley just off highway 212 between the mountains near Rock Creek. It’s advisable to get a campground reservation during peak summer.
The 68 mile long Beartooth Pass Highway 212 winds up 5000 feet high on dozens of switchbacks across the mountains from Red Lodge to Cook City.
It’s the backdoor to Yellowstone Park if you fork west. Or take Crandall Road which takes you to Chief Joseph Highway and then on to Cody, Wyoming if you turn east. Spectacular scenery assured in either direction.
Reaching a staggering height of 10,947 feet (Wyoming side), the highway is closed much of the year. 20 foot deep snow drifts block the road from October to May, sometimes even into June should a big late spring storm strike. All along the way, from Red Lodge to Cook City or Cody, you can find campgrounds located along both Rock Creek and the Clarks Fork Yellowstone rivers.
Red Oxx Tri-fold Shave Kit Toiletry Bag
I’ve used my Safari color Tri-fold as my go-to RV toiletry bag since day one. I love how it fits perfectly in the small cabinet over the stove. When I’m camped out, I pull it out, unroll it and hang it off my closet door. It’s stuffed full of vitamins, toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, and a few adult "rain coats" in the privacy pouch.
I like how I can see through the mesh and know what’s packed in the twin interior mesh pockets. It has been to Burning Man four times, got plenty "Playatized*" and once it’s cleaned up, still looks just like new.
Red Oxx Laundro Bag Wash Sack
This is a sweet laundry bag. I love how it folds down into a pocket-size package I can toss in a cabinet and pull it out, unfold it, and hang it up inside my shirts/coats closet to collect dirty camping clothes.
Red Oxx Extra Small Aviator Kit Bag
I store my "APOCALYPSE BUG OUT PPE" gear in this bag. It’s stored in the cabinet over the bed by the air conditioner. Just the right size for a respirator, N95 masks, gloves, booties, goggles and hazard suit. I bought all that stuff back during the Ebola scare. I guess kinda thinking ahead as a pseudo-prepper wasn’t such a weird idea after all?
Red Oxx K-12 Kat Pack Backpack
This is my hiking backpack. I’m not a hard core hiker, I just like to hike the basic trails, and short half-day hikes. I don’t need a big bulky mountaineering backpack to get around. It holds a jacket, two water bottles, first aid kit, hat, gloves, my camping "hog leg", bear spray, hatchet, Bowie knife, a snack and whatever else I need quite comfortably. I store this in the other cabinet beside the air conditioner.
Red Oxx Lil Roys
I have several colors of this incredibly handy bag. I store video camera equipment in a black one. A small tire air compressor pump fits perfectly in a yellow (Saffron) one. I keep my first aid survival kit in a red one. My mechanic’s tools kit in a blue (Mariner) Roy.
By color-coding my gear I can find it in a blink of an eye. Lil Roy is a super-handy multi-use little bag with twin mesh storage pockets and a central compartment. You’ll be amazed at how much stuff you can fit in a Lil Roy.
Red Oxx Travel Totes
I have all three Red Oxx Totes stored in my Roadtrek. The Mini Tote is the right size for carrying a beer growler. The Mezzo Tote works well for 6-packs or 12-packs (cans). I also use it for the middling amount of groceries you might snatch-up on your way to a camping site. The Market Tote is handy for holding dirty hiking boots, or larger souvenirs like books, T-shirts, hats, posters, and so on.
The best feature about all the totes is they are easily washable and they fold nearly flat for storage.
Red Oxx Reflective Monkey Fist Zip Knots
I was stoked when I heard we were getting Monkey Fist Zipper Pulls that can be seen reflecting light in the dark. They have a 3M reflective thread sewn into them and come in six gorgeous neon colors. I added them to all my camping gear – my jacket, all the zippers on my bags, my backpack.
Petzl e+LITE Headlamp
This little guy is fantastic. It’s so small it stores in my tiny drawer under my stove and provides all the light you need while camping. The red or white light settings are fun.
I’m actually a propane torch kinda guy. I prefer to use a small hand-held trigger torch or sometimes a longer weed torch to start my campfires. But this puppy is stored in my Bug Out backpack in case I happen to get lost. It’s small but effective. Just be sure to also bring along something that easily burns from sparks to get fires started.
Good question. Smaller RVs like camper vans and pop-up trailers tend to have fewer and/or more general cabinet-type storage, if they have any at all. Most of these little nooks and crannies are oddly shaped. A soft-side bag can be manipulated to fit in these little cavities. They won’t rattle around. Best of all, if you’re not using the bag for anything, they fold flat and then take up almost no room at all.
f you like to travel and shop for souvenirs at all the tourist traps, having a soft-sided bag in storage in your RV becomes a great tool for capturing your treasures. You’ll be keeping them safe for distribution once you make it home.
Thank you for reading my installment of Red Oxx and Roadtrek – a Perfect Combo. Next time, Red Oxx and Roadtrek visit Glacier National Park.
Cheers, ~ Minister of Information for D.O.R.A. ~ Department Of Redoxx Affairs.