Preparing for any major trip can be daunting. It only takes one missing ingredient to spoil a meal, one forgotten stuffed animal to ruin a good night’s sleep, one loose screw to make something fall off along a corrugated trail. If we’re honest, these are the worst-case scenarios that cross our minds. So you can imagine how high the stakes felt as we contemplated driving around the world for 10-15 years in a Jeep, leaving the United States in October 2021 with our four-year-old son.
A long-term circumnavigation of the globe requires so much forethought that it starts to feel more like an attempt at fortune-telling. How can anyone anticipate their needs over such a long period of time, from sea level to 15,000 feet in elevation, desert to equatorial jungle, with a small child who could be 19 years old by the time the whole thing is over? Like anything else in life, you do the best you can.
Jeep Gladiator: Home on Wheels
When overlanding, your vehicle is more than a method of transport to get you from point A to point B. It is also your home. We expected ours to feature beds for three, a fridge and stove, and what some people might be willing to call a bathroom. We needed to carry sufficient water and generate our own electricity.
We considered many possibilities, from fancy trailers to Unimogs, and eventually landed on a 2021 Jeep Gladiator Sport S with the Max Tow Package. This specific Gladiator trim provided maximum payload capacity out of all the automatic transmission options: 1,565 pounds. For a habitat, we chose Alu-Cab’s Canopy Camper, which was so new to the United States we had only seen one in person before placing our order, and it wasn’t even on a Gladiator.
There was no blueprint to follow, no expert Gladiator overland build on YouTube we could copy. But we did have our travel experience to lean on. By the time we were building this rig, we’d spent more than seven years traveling the U.S. full-time. Our first two wheeled homes were traditional recreational vehicles, carefully engineered for living on the road. The first overland build we attempted ourselves was a Jeep Wrangler, and the many mistakes we made resulted in a wealth of knowledge. So when we got to the Gladiator, we were fairly confident we knew what we needed. It was just a matter of fitting the puzzle pieces together on an 11-foot wheelbase. Easy, right?
One Big Decision Settles Smaller Decisions
Analysis paralysis is definitely a thing when it comes to designing an overland vehicle. We are fortunate to have so many good options that it’s nearly impossible to decide between them. In our case, the answer to one big question settled many other questions, functioning as a lynchpin for the entire vehicle design. The question was this: where is Caspian going to sit in the Jeep?
It didn’t take a genius to answer this one, fortunately. The kid was four. He constantly dropped toys, needed a snack, or couldn’t figure out the buttons on his tablet. Clearly the person in the passenger seat needed to be the one helping him (I mean, I guess a very talented driver could help). Therefore, Caspian needed to sit diagonal to the front passenger, behind the driver.
This decision led to a chain of design decisions:
- If Caspian is behind the driver, then our 60% seat delete goes behind the passenger.
- If the 60% seat delete is behind the passenger, then the fridge slide and fridge are behind the passenger.
- If the fridge slides out on the passenger side, then the passenger side becomes our living area.
- If the living area is on the passenger side, then the back door of the Alu-Cab Canopy Camper needs to open to that side (this required flipping the door, which normally opens to the driver side). Our gravity-fed water spigot also needs to be on the passenger side.
- If the living area, which we also call our “clean side,” is on the passenger side, then our “dirty side” is on the driver side. This is where we put our trash bag (hangs off the back of the habitat door), bathroom/changing cube, and shower head.
Do you see how one decision led to an entire build philosophy? It’s not just about tacking one piece on top of another, but seeing the big picture that makes a vehicle truly inhabitable.
Powering a Family Adventure
When it came to the electrical system for our new build, there were prior mistakes we wanted to avoid. With our RVs, we’d been hard on our batteries, depleting them below best practice and damaging them prematurely. With our Wrangler, we had a simple monitor we consulted regularly, to make sure we weren’t draining the batteries too much. The problem was, by day 2 of sitting still, we were out of power. We’d have to run the engine at camp, which is obnoxious when you’re out with friends.
We knew we needed a high-quality, high-capacity battery with sufficient solar power to keep it charged without running the alternator or plugging into shore power. We wanted to keep our cranking battery completely separate from our habitat electrical system, so a mechanic on the other side of the world would know what he was looking at when he lifted the hood of the Jeep. This is what we’ve ended up with:
- 170 amp hour lithium battery
- 2,000 watt pure sine wave inverter, so we can safely use 110-volt power to charge our sensitive devices
- 240 watts from two 120w Monocrystalline solar panels on the roof of the Canopy Camper
- REDARC Manager30 to control power inputs (solar, alternator, shore power) and show state of charge
- REDARC RedVision System to control power outputs via a full color panel in our habitat or the phone app
It is magical to not have to rely on shore power or the alternator for power. Having sufficient solar power is a gamechanger, offering a level of freedom we haven’t had in all our years of travel. It doesn’t matter whether the fridge compressor is running constantly off a steamy beach in El Salvador or we’re charging electrical devices for every member of the family at the same time, we always have enough power.
On Beyond the Horizon
As of this writing, we’ve driven our Jeep Gladiator from the United States to Peru. After South America, we plan to drive through Africa, Europe, Asia, and finish in REDARC’s home country of Australia. Caspian is seven now, and conversationally fluent in Spanish after two years in Latin America. Our Jeep home has been extremely good to us, and we’re looking forward to finding out where it will take us next. We still don’t know how to tell the future, but experience has taught us to be okay with that.