For decades, folks have been putting campers in truck beds to effectively turn pickups into RVs, but few are as well-established as a company called Lance. Its “Altimeter” build combines a sweet mobile domicile with a lux Ford F-350 upgraded for off-road driving. There’s a lot to like about this rugged mobile living setup, but it’s not for everyone.
(Full Disclosure: Lance’s PR company contacted me to let me borrow the Altimeter for a few days with full tanks of fuel and fresh water. There was even beer in the fridge. This was many weeks ago, long before stay-home orders went out.)
A brand-new four-door Ford F-350 Platinum with a 6.7-liter Power Stroke diesel engine, four-wheel drive, low range, solid axles, and a locking rear differential is a pretty stout starting point for an adventure rig.
It needs to be, because the Lance 855S truck camper weighs over 3,000 pounds loaded up and ready to use. I snorted when I read that–I’m really going to barge out into the wilderness with the weight of a whole other car on my back? But when I opened the Lance’s rear door and found a nice little apartment, I realized the weight might actually be worth it. The 855S is downright spacious for two people, with a sink and toilet and shower and fridge and big ol’ bed and dining area. The stove has burners and an oven. You could have Thanksgiving in this thing!
Folks familiar with the RV scene are laughing at me right about now. This is all pretty standard stuff in big campers.
But it’s not usually paired with Icon suspension and 37-inch tires. Which, because of the truck’s leviathan size, actually look proportionately normal.
The Lance Altimeter also has a big steel bumper with a few extra KC lights I couldn’t find the switches for. There’s a Warn winch, too. That might be helpful for pulling friends out of ditches; self-recovering 10,000 pounds of truck off a tree might make a few people a little anxious. (Not to say it’s impossible...)
Warn also makes that big steel bumper the winch is mounted on.
Regardless, you’re pretty much looking at a completed checklist of everything you might dream of needing if you plan to take your pickup off the grid for a couple of days.
The first few miles managing the Altimeter around Los Angeles were stressful. It felt like nudging an ocean liner out of a parking spot at the grocery store. Plenty of people live in RVs in my west Los Angeles neighborhood, but I have to say I was intimidated taking one down a road lined with parked cars. And of course, in reality, this doesn’t take up more of a lane than an F-350! The side mirrors extend beyond the camper box so as long as you can drive an HD pickup, you can drive this. It just... feels scary.
The vehicle’s weight and high center of gravity stayed apparent as it swayed and creaked through low-speed maneuvers. But once we got out on the highway, I started getting a little more comfortable. At least, until about 70 mph, when road and wind noise made talking to my wife in the passenger seat a little arduous.
A Platinum-trim level Super Duty truck cab is pretty well insulated against the outside world, but no amount of sealing can keep out the screams of enormous knobby tires or wind against such an aerodynamically unfriendly vehicle.
I kept my cruising speed at 62 mph for better cab ambiance, and to try to squeeze double-digit mpg out of the hardworking Power Stroke diesel. I didn’t succeed at the latter, though. We ended up doing about 500 miles of cruising, most of which were on open highway, and couldn’t get better than 9-and-change mpg.
It seems that it takes more than one weekend to get accustomed to the mass and motion of a vehicle like this–I didn’t have an issue planning for slowness, but the sensation of “balancing weight over my head” gave me some anxiety I never really got over.
The cab itself is a fantastic place to sprawl out, though. There’s about an acre of leather, heated and massaging seats, and Ford’s current Sync infotainment software is easy to use. Lance cutely stuck an altimeter on the dash of the Altimeter.
I don’t like the texture of the steering wheel, though... every high-trim Ford truck I’ve driven has had an oddly cheap and sticky-feeling helm for some reason. Must be the material the company uses just doesn’t agree with my palms.
I’m usually a “journey’s-more-fun-than-destination” guy, but once we found a little clearing near the Southern Fork Kern River just outside Sequoia National Park, the Altimeter became a lot more entertaining than it was on the freeway.
It’s not really “camping,” so much as, “you now have an apartment in the woods.” It’s pretty neat to go for a hike, then come home to a furnished and decorated cell you don’t even have to set up.
Being in a nice, modern RV was a novelty for me so you’ll have to take my review of the camper interior with that context in mind. Having both a stove and a microwave, and a stocked fridge, and a sink, and a diner booth—not to mention a shower and a toilet—just plopped wherever we parked, made the idea of staying out on the road indefinitely seem logistically easier than it does when my lady and I go out in my Montero. There, we only have two seats and a bed.
The toilet’s also a big advantage while you’re en route to wherever. I personally don’t really mind peeing between two open doors on the side of an unpopulated secondary road, but that’s frowned upon in populous areas and it’s nice to not have to rely on gas station poop receptacles. At nighttime, the onboard restroom is a whole lot better than clambering out of a tent and into the dark. Especially since one of the heater ducts is pointed at the throne.
It’s just a shame there isn’t more room for windows on these things. When you’re in the camper, you have to make an effort to find a portal to peer out of and enjoy the ambiance of wherever you are.
The second stop on our mini overland excursion was Johnson Valley, a big sandy patch of nothing owned by the Bureau of Land Management. It’s a glorious place where you can drive in any direction to your heart’s content, and also serves as the venue for the rowdy King Of The Hammers racing event every year.
By the time we got there on this trip, I had more than 10 hours of wheel time and was brave enough test the Altimeter’s significant height and girth over some bumps and hills.
Once the truck got off-kilter on soft terrain, it got a little weird again. At very low speed, in low range four-wheel drive, the truck didn’t have any problem with traction in somewhat soft sand. Even at highway tire pressure, it was easy to start and stop wherever I wanted.
But the groans, creaks, and weight shifting were so disconcerting that I had a hard time enjoying myself. I don’t know how people with huge five-figure-curb-weight overland rigs do it for days and weeks.
The 37-inch tires and Icon suspension give the Altimeter pretty good ground clearance, but the F-350’s wheelbase is so long that it’s hard to imagine the truck getting over anything overly technical. The ride’s nice and soft over whatever as long as you keep the speed down, though.
Nobody ever said this vehicle would be fast, and if the objective is just to get to a campsite far from the main trail, this setup does give you that ability. You just need to recalibrate your expectations for what a 4x4 feels like–something like this would be much less forgiving than an SUV or empty pickup truck on account of the weight. Don’t point it down into any valleys you can’t see an easy exit out of.
Plopping a Lance 855S out in the backcountry doesn’t really feel like camping per se–it’s more like suddenly having an apartment wherever you can fit the truck. Did I mention that already? It’s kind of the only sentiment you need on the matter. It’s nice for really short trips, like when you just want to leave town Friday after traffic, get out to a camp spot real late, to wake up someplace cool for your day off.
It’d also be great for really long trips, where you’re spending the day doing something physically intense like biking or climbing and want a warm “civilized” abode to retreat to without having to rejoin the masses at a hotel.
The Platinum Ford F-350 cab is plenty plush for doing big days in the saddle and the Super Duty platform is going to be strong, serviceable, and provide better driving dynamics than a bus-style RV.
The high-end Dometic mobile appliances inside the Altimeter make cooking in the truck feel like cooking at home. And not my home, but like, an actual nice home.
At night, the quiet-but-efficient heater is what truly separates the upper-class campers from the plebs sleeping on pads on folded-down seats in the back of SUVs. (I am the latter, usually.) It’s wonderfully luxurious to be able to control the temperature of your surroundings while camping.
I didn’t expect a lot of efficiency out of a 10,000-pound vehicle but hanging out in the 9 mpg neighborhood at 62 mph on the highway is tough. That’s not bad for an RV, but coming off my 3.5-liter V6 Montero (20 mpg on the highway) it hurt a little. The road noise I mentioned also makes long cruises somewhat annoying, which is a real shame since the best reason to have a vehicle like this is to do long stints and have a temporary home far from your regular home.
Fuel economy’s definitely not liable to improve once you get down to crawling speed and go off-road. And while the Altimeter never seemed to have an issue with traction, I can’t say I felt particularly thrilled at the idea of trying to get the thing down a trail or too far from the main track in open desert.
Big-truck off-roading is certainly possible and there are folks out there with overland rigs far heavier than 10,000 pounds. Heck, I used to drive this Isuzu cabover up and down some of the toughest off-road routes in Australia:
But the Altimeter felt a little unwieldy, even when there was nothing to run into.
So you end up in this paradox: How much technical off-roading do you really expect to take this thing? If “not much,” why subject yourself to the noise and of mud tires and spend a stack of money on suspension?
These are mostly critiques of slide-in campers on modded pickups in general, but I can only report what I observed.
Though I will say, I was annoyed by the fact that the diner booth deploys so far outwards for the sake of interior space. Not only does this introduce a failure point, if the motor-and-rail mechanism stopped working you either couldn’t move the vehicle or easily get inside the camper, but it’s also very easy to bonk your head while walking around the outside or getting things from the cab.
The rain gutters, which I didn’t expect to be testing in southern California and maybe the manufacturer didn’t either, dropped a stream of water directly down the middle of the passenger’s door on the outside. So any time my companion wanted to get in or out during a downpour, they got doused with a concentrated beam of water coming off the roof.
As for the interior of the 855S, my only mild complaint is that the wood cabinetry, carpeting, and window curtains all felt kind of... dated. It all worked nicely but didn’t match the aggressive modernness of the exterior.
A Power Stroke diesel F-350 Platinum is going to be north of 80 grand and a Lance 855S like this another $40,000. You could spend as much as you want doing suspension, wheels, and tires on a vehicle like this too.
I think the most objectively logical choice for creating a setup like this would be to throw decent, durable over-the-road tires on a mid-spec truck then try to find the softest shocks that could bear the weight of your camper for max comfort and be satisfied with dirt roads as the extent of your mobile home “wheeling.”
The Lance Altimeter does look pretty badass though, and it’s cool to imagine carrying its luxurious accommodation out to the back of beyond for a few days of having your own private apartment in the middle of anywhere.
I personally would still rather slum it in my $5,000 SUV, cook outside, poop in the woods, and save the surplus cash for gasoline and beer. But if you want the power of a heavy-duty pickup paired with the amenities of a nice modern apartment, and you can afford it, something like this would be very sweet.