Building a Bug Out Vehicle

Delivered — Yes the SNOmobile is here!

Update February 11, 2011

We made a 4000-mile round trip to pick up the SNOmobile from Powerhouse Coach in Idaho Falls. It’s huge, it’s powerful, and it has everything you need to survive with your whole family for weeks or even months on the road.

We’re in the process of editing a couple dozen hours of raw video of the trip, as well as several hundred still photos, so hang in there until we start posting new info. Soon we’ll post episodes of the trip, as well as interior and exterior tours of the rig, along with suggestions for customizing a bugout vehicle to your particular needs.

Meanwhile, you can get a glimpse of the SNOmobile in this video, a super-exciting bugout bag comparison shot inside the rig! It explains why the SnoMan switched from the Maxpedition Sitka Gearslinger to the Maxpedition Falcon 2 backpack.

To be notified when we post these videos, sign up for updates in the sidebar, and be sure to subscribe to SNOMultimedia’s Youtube channel.

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This has been an update. Earlier posts appear below.

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Stage 4 — Interior framing

Update December 7

It has been only a week since the last update, but things are moving fast now as the delivery deadline approaches. Here are some new pictures.

The house batteries are a new, low-maintenance type. Good thing, because they're being installed in a fairly inaccessible location.

The entry door is man-sized, so you have an idea how much headroom there is in there. The two rearmost openings are the vents for the fridge.

Space for the couch on the driver's side. The left-hand fifth of the window features a tiny little opening. Not sure what that's about, but we'll see how we like it.

Kitchen cabinets. From the right: propane furnace is on the floor, oven and cooktop will fit above; drawers in the center; a tilt drawer in front of the sink, and cabinets below. The window slides open for a cross-breeze.

Driver's side of the bunkroom.

Four-door, three-way fridge, and a view of the bunkroom. Note the closet at the back for a washer/drier combo.

Kitchen cupboards. The tall one is about 41 inches tall. The amount of high storage in this vehicle is stunning. It won't feel huge and roomy, but I specified that I needed lots of storage and couldn't afford any slides. Powerhouse Coach has some giant floor plans, but they'll deliver whatever you need.

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This has been an update. Earlier posts appear below.

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Update December 1

It’s a little bit of a mismatch to talk about these construction stages as if they were discrete from each other. The fact is, as you approach the end of the project, there’s a lot going on in different areas all at the same time. For instance, you can’t close in the roof until you finish the electrical work on the inside. But we’re definitely into the home stretch. I’m told we’ll be done about mid-January.

Fuel and water tanks on the driver's side.

Empty interior looking aft.

Generator housing with an extra high capacity cooling fan.

The is the bunkroom, looking forward. We'll have three bunks on each side and a closet in the middle at the rear.

Looking forward from a point just ahead of the bunkroom. The ladder is where the couch is going to be. Forward of that is the bathroom on the driver's side and the shower on the passenger side.

The kitchen goes here. After this picture was taken, they cut intake and exhaust holes for the three-way refrigerator.

Generator housing with an extra high capacity cooling fan.

Phone cam photo of the spare tire mount. Powerhouse Coach's solution includes a simple ramp to roll the spare off and the flat up to the storage bracket. It should be possible for one man to do the tire change. (This is a photo of the existing tire, not the new tires).

The shower, looking aft.

View of the passenger side before the refrigerator cutouts.

We have now closed in the rear of the coach. Note the trim framing around the storage compartments.

Bathroom, view of the sink.

Bathroom, view of the commode.

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This has been an update. Earlier posts appear below.

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Stage 3 — Shell construction

Update 13 October 2010

Before we get to the shell, there have been a few changes to the original plan.

  1. Final overall length is confirmed at 40 feet. We were always around 38 and 39, but tweaks here and there added a few inches.
  2. The cab air unit will be placed above the coach access door in the space between the cab and the coach. The original plan was to build it flush into the driver’s side upper cab window, but Doug’s final solution is better cosmetically and functionally. (Doug Tolbert is the president of Powerhouse Coach, Inc., and a great guy). It won’t be as noisy when we’re sitting in our lawn chairs on the driver’s side of the coach, and it won’t take up any interior space. Also, this central placement allows us to cool the cab more symmetrically and, presumably, more evenly.
  3. Self-extraction capability was an open question from the beginning. The hydraulic winch and support systems needed to pull a 40,000 lb. vehicle out of the mud is simply too expensive on our budget. So we’ve dropped it — maybe another day.
  4. With a little money freed up by dropping the winch, we’ve added the Powerhouse Coach backup camera system. That way my wife doesn’t have to go outside and help me back up, LOL.
  5. Doug figured that there is plenty of space in the bunk room, so we have six bunks (instead of five), plus eight-inch tall drawers under the bottom bunks AND storage cabinets over the top bunks (not sure how tall yet). This confirms what we’ve thought all along — we made the under-coach storage bays a little shallower than normal, for crossover clearance, and made up the lost storage inside.
  6. The pantry grew a few inches, so Doug suggested building in a coat closet, which is good news. My work occasionally requires my wife and me to dress up, so we’ll have a good way to keep the suit and the dress wrinkle-free. I hate wearing a coat and tie, but my wife looks smashing in a dress, so it’s worth it now and then.

And here are the most recent photos:

This is the door connecting the cab to the coach. Note the framed opening above the door where the cab A/C unit will go.

The storage compartment under the passenger will house the propane tanks. Between it and the fuel tank we'll have an auxilliary water supply tank.

There will be a small window on this side just above the couch.

Yes, it's going to be fairly cozy in there, but we're building this for maximum functionality, not for maximum luxurious roominess. Like I told Doug when we started this project, we're a family of seven with kids from 1 year to 16, not a retired couple with a lapdog. (Nothing against lapdogs -- we actually have two long-haired chihuahuas).

A little more on this — I’ve always thought of the SNOmobile as a cross between a global expedition vehicle, a bugout project, and a motor home. It is not as self-sufficient as an expedition vehicle, but much more capable than a motor home. Its job is to get us all safely to our bugout location and house us for several days or a few weeks if necessary. The upshot is that the inside will be fairly tight compared to an RV designed for full timers, but a whole lot better than a minivan.

Floor detail. We're pre-plumbing for a washer on the rear wall between the bunk stacks, but we're not installing that yet.

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This has been an update. Earlier updates appear below.

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Stage 2 — Roughing in the Systems

Update 21 September 2010

We’re now into the systems, electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling, and storage. Doug at Powerhouse Coach, Inc., remains true to form — innovative, communicative, imaginative, on schedule, under budget… you couldn’t ask for a better contractor.

Here are some photos of the progress to date:

Here's the installation of the under-cab, passenger storage box. Notice the Bigfoot hydraulic leveling system.

Left front steer hub, working on the front off-road system, which allows us to raise the body up to 4 inches. Note that this does not affect ground clearance, as the differential case doesn't lift, but it does improve approach, departure, and crossover angles. The longer the wheelbase, the less improvement of the crossover angle, but Doug lobbied hard to shorten the originally-planned wheelbase for several reasons, and since "he that hearkeneth unto counsel is wise," we've done so.

Driver side storage bays. Doug recommended that we build these bays a little shallower than he normally does, reducing storage but improving crossover capability. The generator will be housed in the rearmost bay. We talked about installing longer, smaller-radius fuel tanks (and making smaller storage bays) to improve the crossover even further, but we didn't have the budget.

View of the rear storage bays. Note also the sturdy frame. The storage bays are built from 1/8# plate steel. The center bays are strong enough to support the entire weight of the rig (and no, I have no intention to test this).

You can see the box they had to build around the rear leveling piston (on the right inside the bay). As Doug puts it, it'll be a bugger if we ever need to replace it, but we decided to maximize storage and deal with the replacement if it's ever needed.

You’ll notice I haven’t posted photos of the other systems, but I don’t want to divulge all of Doug’s trade secrets. He has spent twenty years developing his techniques; if you have specific questions about routing the electrical, plumbing, or heating/cooling systems, contact him directly. He’ll be an excellent consultant who goes the extra mile to help you.

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This has been an update. Early posts begin below.

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Stage 1 — Frame Extension

Update 01 September 2010

Powerhouse Coach, Inc., is progressing nicely with the Survival News Online bugout vehicle. The first stage of construction involved frame extension.

Volvo 780 on arrival at Powerhouse Coach. Photo by Doug Tolbert.

Original front grill and bumper.

This is the kind of bumper guard we will install on the BOV, except the rally lights will be white.

Frame extension in process.

Rear view of the frame extension.

Side view of the frame extension.

We have made some modifications to the plan since I first posted about this — we’ve extended the length of the coach and shortened the wheelbase. Overall length is now estimated at 40 feet. Wheelbase will be more than the illustrated 281.5 inches measured from the front axle to the midpoint between the drive axles (not sure how much yet, getting this info from the builder). This creates a rear overhang of about 7 feet, resulting in excellent weight transfer to the drivers, which improves traction in snow, mud, and sand, and also improves fuel economy and reduces wear on the steers. This is illustrated in the following photo:

Passenger side elevation showing a breakdown of longitudinal dimensions. Wheelbase will actually be slightly longer than illustrated, for an overall length of about 40 feet.

Drivers will be 445/50R22.5 Michelin XDN2 super singles for improved traction, and steers will be 315/80R22.5 Michelin X2A-1 floats. Supers are amazingly expensive (over $1000 each just for the tires), but the gain in traction is mandatory for our application. This configuration also mandates keeping spares. The spare super will be mounted on the rear bumper, and we’re still debating where to store the spare steer.

Wheels will be clear-coated aluminum. The spare super will weigh nearly 400 lbs, so we’ll have to devise a way to lift it to the hub. We have discussed one method, but it requires four hands. It’ll do in a pinch, but I want to work up a procedure that can be executed by my 12-year-old, if necessary.

The exhaust pipe has been removed and will be re-routed under the coach. The fender-mounted mirrors have been removed. The fuel tanks were removed and then reinstalled after the water tanks were installed.

Water supply will be 135 gallons including a 50 gallon auxiliary.

We’re still planning the electrical system — more updates coming soon.

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This has been an update. Earlier posts begin below.

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Volvo 780 Truck Delivered to Powerhouse Coach

Update 07 July 2010

Three weeks ago we sent the Volvo 780 driveline fluid samples to a lab for analysis and hooked up the truck to a dynamometer for engine performance tests. It passed both with flying colors, so we closed the deal and sent the truck to Idaho for conversion.

On arrival we found it in excellent condition for a truck with 820,000 miles. Other than some paint dings and a damaged grill, it has very little of the wear and tear you might expect. Evidently it was maintained by someone who wanted to protect his investment.

One of the most exciting steps in this process is determining the project specifications. Like I explained to the builder, Doug Tolbert, this is not a luxury coach for a retired couple and their poodle; it’s a multi-function, versatile vehicle for an outdoor-loving family of seven, including toddlers. I don’t want nice leather and carpet; I need stuff that’s easy to clean, like vinyl. Mud tracks and crumbs are a part of our everyday lives. If I char the counter top with a hot skillet I don’t want to get the sick feeling that a high-dollar repair bill is coming up.

It’s a good thing we needed something a little rough around the edges, because our budget is pretty tight. Powerhouse builds million-dollar rigs, and there’s just no way we can afford something like that. Fortunately Doug understands “family budget” and is willing to build a conservative offroad-adapted rig for under $350,000. Just how far under depends on the cost of some custom fabrication like the grill guard, spare tire bracket, and winch bumpers. The spare alone weighs about 300 lbs, which requires a pretty stout mount.

Whether you’re going for the height of luxury (we’re not), or a rugged family-sized bugout vehicle (that’s us!), Powerhouse delivers tremendous value.

There are certain bells and whistles I think should be included in order to protect the investment. For example, we don’t need a satellite receiver, but if I ever plan to sell the rig, my buyer probably will, so we’re pre-wiring it for satellite. Same with the outdoor TV; I’ll never watch it, but we’re pre-wiring for that too, just in case.

Anyway, to see the project specs as of 7 July 2010, click this link: Download SNO 4×6 Bugout Vehicle Specs

The spec sheet doesn’t do justice to Doug’s ingenuity. For example, it says nothing about the clever storage nooks and crannies he builds into his rigs, and which are all the more important in our case. The SNO vehicle is over ten feet shorter than his typical coach, and we’re traveling with seven people, so we need as much storage as we can get.

In the next few weeks I’ll post the final floor plan, elevations, construction photos, and possibly some system diagrams, if available. My hope is that this will help as you design and build your own bugout vehicle.

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This has been an update. The original article appears below:

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You probably already have a bugout vehicle and just don’t realize it. If you own something with wheels and an internal combustion engine, if you can put an emergency kit in it or on it, and if you can aim it toward a safe place when everything goes south in your current location, then you have a BOV. Of course, not all BOVs are created equal.

BOVs come in many flavors; some call them expedition vehicles, some call them offroad RVs, and usually it’s just a pickup or a four-wheel-drive car. Whatever you call it, the idea is to have safe, versatile transportation for you and your family so you can get to your bugout location in a Big Crunch situation.

Global Expedition Vehicles

Pictures of Various BOVs

Maximog

Unicat Expedition Vehicles

Ten-Best (WARNING: Some of the content on this page is not family-friendly).

During the next few months we’re going to track the “SNOmobile Project,” a BOV specially commissioned by Survival News Online and designed by Doug Tolbert at Powerhouse Coach, Inc. Doug is calling it “The Beast 4×6 Offroad.” Why “the Beast?” Because it’s huge. It’s gigantic. Basically it’s a Volvo VN780 converted into an offroad RV… almost: it’s not actually “offroad capable,” more like “bad-road capable.” More on this later.

I’m not sure we’ll stick with “The Beast,” but we’ll see. If you have suggestions, be sure to post them in the forums.

I wanted to design a long range vehicle capable of sustaining a family of 7 for several days or even a few weeks. It needs to travel primitive roads throughout the Americas, and endure freezing temperatures without damaging the water supply and plumbing. A few weeks ago I made a list of project parameters. (Text in black is the original list. Text in blue shows compromises dictated by budget):

  1. Range 3000 miles. Actual range will likely be 2000 miles. 3000 mile range would have required total fuel capacity of 425 gallons. This is doable, but not on the length of wheelbase I can afford.
  2. Flexible diesel fuel — not the new Ultra Low Sulphur Diesel engines. ULSD is not widely available in South America, and if I drive this thing to Patagonia I want to be able to burn the fuel they have down there. The engine had to be pre-2008, and we found a 2004 in great shape.
  3. All wheel drive. There were two ways to obtain a 6×6, neither of which I could afford: a) Start with a construction truck such as the Mack Granite and modify it by adding air-ride suspension (to keep from breaking all the dishes and slamming around the wife and kids), replacing the front and rear differentials to lower the final drive ratio (these trucks typically top out at 65 mph), and building a torsion-free subframe on which to mount the coach (true off-road capability requires keeping all six wheels on the ground, which requires a flexible frame, which would destroy the coach if you didn’t build it on a torsion-free subframe); b) the other way to get a 6×6 is to start with an over-the-road truck like the Volvo 780 and add a front drive axle. The problem with this approach is the cost of modifying the frame so you have room to put the front differential. Either way, it was too expensive. SOLUTION: settle for a 4×6 with full-locking rear differentials and design the coach with as much weight on the drivers as reasonably possible.
  4. Widely-distributed platform. Let’s make it easy to get parts and service. The Volvo 780 with a Cummins ISX engine fits the bill.
  5. Protective design for road hazards, rocks, and obstacles. Skid plates, a brush guard, and integrated bumper guard.
  6. Off-road design; maximize approach, departure, and crossover angles, as well as overall ground clearance. A shorter wheelbase assures a good crossover angle, which is improved by installing Super Single tires (+ 1 inch of height).  Also, the design calls for the air bag suspension to fully inflate at the touch of a button when needed (+ 2 inches of height). You can’t drive it like that for long, but it’ll get you out of a mess. To improve the departure angle, taper the rear overhang. Limiting factor will be the 40,000 lb. trailer hitch.
  7. Maximize self-extraction capability. The verdict is not in — not sure we can afford the hydraulic winches capable of extracting a 40,000 lb vehicle from the mud.
  8. Winter-ready. All water tanks and supply lines are in heated compartments.
  9. Adequate power to haul 4 dirt bikes. Not that hauling a trailer helps with off-road capability, but besides being a bugout vehicle, The Beast must do double-duty as an RV so my boys and I can ride our bikes!
  10. Fuel economy. By starting with an over-the-road truck designed for maximum fuel economy (instead of the 6×6 construction chassis previously mentioned) we’re way ahead of the game. The 780 is already aerodynamic, and the longer the body the better it gets, so adding the coach will help. And at 40,000 lbs. fully loaded, we’ll be at half the weight this truck was designed to pull. I wouldn’t be surprised to see 10 mpg or better.

Here’s the latest floor plan:

2010 4x6 Offroad

The sofas in the sleeper fold out into a big bed for me and my wife. We have five bunks in the rear for the kids, and one of the bunk spaces will give way to storage. The sofa in the coach shows a bunk overhead, but we’ll put cabinets instead; the storage boxes underneath the coach are going to be rather shallow so we can improve the ground clearance, and as a consequence we need to maximize storage in the coach itself. I’ll probably move the drivers forward a foot or so to make room for the generator behind them; we need as much weight behind the drivers as possible.

We’ll eat in the sleeper on popup tables. The front seats swivel and 68-in sofas will each comfortably accommodate three large adults or four kids, so we should have plenty of room for all seven of us plus two or three guests. We can even bring along a family of six, but we won’t all be able to eat at the same table and a couple of them might have to double-bunk or sleep on the floor.

Water capacities are limited because of size, but here’s how I feel about it; when we’re hooked up we’re fine, and when we’re not we’ll just bathe minimally and fill up the tank as frequently as needed. It’s not ideal, but it’s doable.

We have a ton of interesting features coming up soon: details about the design, changes to the floor plan, in fact the whole construction process. Stay tuned!

~SnoMan

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  • alex

    hello SnoMan
    Your vehicle looks very nice and also very comfortable. Here's the problem in case of an (emi) which ist very possible all those electronic stuff and even the whole truck will be useless. I think your goal is too "survive" but carrying 3-5 tons crap/ electronics and comfort stuff instead of 3-5 tons of food and water is not the best choice.

    sry for my bad english

  • sn0man

    You're absolutely right, Alex. In many situations this vehicle will be very useful, but in case of an EMP this could be a problem. That's why it pays to have a number of contingency plans in place, not just one!

  • warmyourbeans

    Would building a Faraday cage into the garage or the frame of the vehicle itself mitigate the dangers of an EMP?

  • scott

    As long as you have a couple bicycles in the mix ya'll be fine for the EMP blast.

  • http://Senseless.Livejournal.com Mike Engel

    I did and owned an autobody shop for the first half of my working life and would have loved to have helped put that all together!

    My neighbors all have huge RV's…

    You've got me thinking I could hide a BOV in plain site LOL.

  • http://www.ltssupply.com wing nuts

    Would building a Faraday cage into the garage or the frame of the vehicle

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    It has been some time since I visited website with such high quality information. Thank you so much for providing such helpful information. This is really informative and I will for sure refer my friends the same. Thanks

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    Would building a Faraday cage into the garage or the frame of the vehicle
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  • Denik

    Vehicle insurance is very necessary for everyone. Mostly people like to have insurance for their safety purpose. In case they are facing any accident then they can get some money from the insurance agency. In order to stop accident the wireless path invention is going on for the well transportation of the vehicle that protects from accident.
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    Vehicle insurance is very necessary for everyone. Mostly people like to have insurance for their safety purpose. In case they are facing any accident then they can get some money from the insurance agency. In order to stop accident the wireless path invention is going on for the well transportation of the vehicle that protects from accident.

    • http://SurvivalObjective.com Brum

      Denik, how is auto insurance going to keep you safe? Perhaps something is being lost here in translation… I see you have added a business link to sell insurance… that is called spamming a forum. maybe in your country that is acceptable, but not in most others.

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  • Brian

    Any plans to put the walkthrough video on youtube? I'd be very interested in seeing the finished product.

  • http://www.oriona2.com/saab.html Danish Rich

    This is really looking stylish and comfortable. It is having a very wide space inside it where a whole family can reside. It’s huge, it’s powerful, and it has everything that we require to survive with our whole family for weeks or even months on our trip. So as this is really looking stylish and comfortable so we have to maintain this else we may face problems. So we have to service it after particular kilometers of run and also we have to repair our cars from good repair centers whenever required to get better performance from it and for our cars smoother running. .

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