Matt and I spent a lot of time looking at different truck options that could support our global overland travel plans before stumbling across this YouTube video. It was the engaging vlog of a couple from Alaska documenting their own search for an overland rig.
In the video, they were at an overland vehicle company called ETL checking out a converted Light Military Tactical Vehicle - or LMTV. The truck had a lot of features we were looking for: not too big, separate wet and dry bathrooms, a descending queen sized bed, lots of large windows, and a crawl through passage to the cab. It didn't look very stylish on the inside, but the bones seemed to be there.
We did a little research and learned that ETL had been purchased by Plan-B Supply (PBS), out of Ogden, Utah. They are a company that specializes in survival preparation. From their website:
If everyday life changes due to an earthquake, hurricane, blizzard, tornado, financial collapse, war, pandemic, political unrest, zombies...well...yeah...any of those things...WE WANT TO SURVIVE! And we want others to survive as well. We know it takes a good measure of preparedness and hard work along with smart planning and lots of love and courage to be ready for a disastrous event. Vehicles that will go the distance...
In other words, they cater to preppers. We later learned that one of their big marketing events of the year is PrepperCon, which promotes itself as a one-stop shop for survival preparedness. It even has a prepper fashion show...with cute little kids modeling bullet-proof schoolbags.
Fascinating as I found this whole apocalyptic preparation scene (and market), we are not preppers. But apparently preppers and overlanders have some things in common since both want to get off the grid. One is preparing for the end of the world, and the other wants maximum freedom to travel and explore. Both need a rig with solar panels, large tanks, and redundant systems.
Anyway, the PBS truck looked like it could be exactly what we wanted. We booked flights out to Salt Lake City to check them out in person. When we arrived at the shop, we were shown into a huge workshop filled mostly with Humvees, along with a small handful of the RV-style military trucks in various states of build.
The rig we had seen on the Alaska couple’s vlog was just as tough, masculine, and utilitarian-looking in person as it had seemed online. It was a 1997 model that had been bought by ETL at a military surplus sale. It only had 17,000 miles on it, but there was no record of any of its maintenance history.
The exterior, parked in the PBS shop:
Interior with bed descended from ceiling, jackknife sofa, and faux wood paneled walls.
The kitchen had a busy countertop and backsplash, as well as a propane stove.
It was functional, but not very comfortable and in no way pleasing to look at. We talked a lot to the PBS guys about possible renovations we could do, and started to really think that it could work for us. Fully gutted and remodeled, it would still cost less than a third of what a BlissMobil or GXV would have cost us.
After several more conversations and one more trip out to Ogden, in the early spring of 2018 we bought the truck.
We decided to split the remodeling work in half so that in May we could take the truck on a week-long road trip. That road trip would enable us to live in the truck a little to get a sense of any other changes that we might want to make. The plan was that over Labor Day Weekend we would fly in to pick up the completely renovated truck and drive it back.
As the weeks turned into months, though, it became apparent that nobody was really doing any work on our truck. PBS kept telling us that materials were being sourced or ordered, but the work just wasn't being done. We arrived in Ogden in May to find that - as expected - only a small fraction of our pre-May list had been completed. The two PBS owners were apologetic. They told us that they had been understaffed, and had just hired a new project manager who would be dedicated to leading the rest of our build.
We accepted that, and headed off to enjoy our truck's maiden voyage down to the Overland Expo in Flagstaff, Arizona. With us were our son, Wolf, and sweet 10-week old puppy, Casey, who we had just picked up from our breeder on our way to Salt Lake City!
We had a great trip out to the very cool Overland Expo West. Besides meeting lots of like-minded adventurous spirits, we learned a lot about the overlanding lifestyle and came back excited to finish the renovations and start our own traveling adventure. But when we returned to Kansas City, it soon became clear that having a project manager assigned to our truck build wasn't making much difference. Once again, the work wasn't moving along very fast.
Almost two months after our original deadline, the truck was finally delivered to us. It arrived mostly done, but with lots of smallish things (like interior door handles...) not installed. The PBS team flew guys down to Kansas City twice to finish the work on-site at our house. Both times they stayed a few days and did a lot, but even after their second visit the remaining work wasn't finished.
After a lot of back and forth that didn't really go anywhere, we eventually gave up on the idea that PBS would complete the job as originally scoped. If we wanted to get on with our adventure, we were going to have to get the rest of it done ourselves. Matt did a lot on his own, and then we found local companies who helped with the stuff he couldn't do - like adding another fuel tank.
The bottom line (for us) is that the guys at PBS do have the technical know-how to reinvent these military trucks into whatever kind of build you would possibly want - as long as you don't also want consistent communication, reliable follow through, and an on-time completion.
The reason we got the truck completed at all really came down to one guy on the PBS team: Matthew. When he wasn't ice climbing in Chile or paragliding across Morocco, he was muscling our project toward the finish line at PBS. Unsurprisingly, he recently left PBS to go be a pilot somewhere. If you ever read this, Matthew - thank you.
In terms of our truck and what we ended up with, the good news is that we love it. We're still finishing up some loose ends, but it's functional, efficient, and really comfortable. It looks good, too!
For a little before and after fun, we went from this blah interior:
To this one!!
A few of the changes we made to the interior include:
· Real hardwood flooring
· Solid walnut tabletop to replace the plywood one
· Two space-efficient recliners instead of the jackknife sofa
· Quartz countertops in kitchen and bathroom
· Zero radius kitchen sink with new faucet
· New fridge
· Two-burner induction stove to replace propane stove
· White wall covering
· Window shades
· Recessed lighting
· New cabinetry
· New upholstery for the sofa
· Bookcase shelves built-in behind the recliners
· Additional storage inside and out, including a garage for our electric bike.
As part of the truck's rebirth, we kind of liked the idea of giving it a name but could never land on anything. We started to think that maybe we just weren't vehicle naming people.
Then one afternoon, Matt offhandedly mentioned that he needed to move "the big buffalo". We looked at each other, and realized that we finally had our name. The Buffalo was born!