Heading down the east side of Hagerman Pass, near Leadville, Colorado, after crossing the continental divide.
I’m in my 2017 Ram/Cummins with Hallmark Nevada flatbed camper, following my buddy Brad, pulling his Kimberley Karavan trailer with his second generation Toyota Sequoia, and Tony in his 6.4L F-250 with a Four Wheel Campers Hawk on the back.
The questions and answers below were prompted by recent posts regarding auxiliary springs for my truck camper outfit.
Iggy The Igloo asked about heavy-duty suspension setup and options. Iggy has a Fourth Generation Ram 3500 crew cab, long bed, with a flatbed Alaskan popup. His truck had Firestone air springs, including Daystar cradles to prevent limiting droop-travel, but he did not like how the airbags consumed inches of up-travel. His front axle has Thuren Fab 1.5-inch replacement coils.
Questions, Answers, and Comments
Q] Do you leave your camper mounted full-time?
A] The chassis is always loaded with my Hallmark flatbed camper, tools, and gear. I will remove the Hallmark occasionally to inspect things, but have not done so yet.
2014-and-newer Ram 2500s (like mine) have coils in the rear, so I couldn’t install extra leaf springs (add-a-leaf). My assessment from owning two coil-sprung, late-model Ram 2500s is that the OE rear coils work surprisingly well, even with maximum loads. However, for a big camper it seems nearly everyone (2500 & 3500, F250 & F350) wants or needs additional spring-rate for better all-around performance. Regardless of whether one uses air, rubber, or metal auxiliary springs, the goal is to support the load.
If new or additional springs were not desirable for big weight, then those who rarely fill their trucks to capacity would complain loudly about heavy-duty pickup ride-quality. New trucks generally offer a more comfortable and softer ride these days, both with and without a load, though sometimes this includes compromises for heavy-hauling.
Replacement springs? Add-ons? Both?
Q] Why did you choose Timbren springs instead of an add-a-leaf?
A] My 2017 Ram 2500 uses something similar to an add-a-leaf in the form of beefier aftermarket rear coils from TufTruck. They were helpful, though they’re only designed for an additional 500-pounds. This is not enough, and I’m trying to convince TufTruck to make new coils with substantially more capacity.
The latest single-convoluted Timbrens and my other modifications (aftermarket sway/body-roll bars, shocks, and stout tires) have helped my flatbed outfit drive and handle impressively well for its size, weight, and height.
Aftermarket air springs seem to be the most common heavy-duty suspension upgrade, likely due to their cost, adjustability, and ease of installation. I’ve used air before, though some negatives can include leaks, failure in extreme cold temperatures, and a bouncy ride. Some choose replacement leaf packs, but if the weight is removed the extreme-duty replacements can be too stiff for an unladen truck.
Q] How have your Timbrens changed the sag? Did the springs put you back up to stock ride height with your load, or do you still have some sag?
A] Neither my 2014 crew cab, which used to carry a Hallmark slide-in, nor my 2017 regular cab flatbed, has ever had a sagging, negative-rake stance. This was largely because I didn’t lift or level the front first. This is the opposite approach of many these days.
For my ’17 Ram 2500, I added the Hallmark Nevada flatbed, gear and other heavy accessories, while experimenting with auxiliary rear suspension options. Lighter-duty Air Lift 1000 springs inside the rear coils were used initially, then TufTruck replacement springs, and now the rubber Timbrens.
While I respect companies like Thuren Fab and think their products are great, their parts are focused on a softer ride and/or going fast over rough terrain. Softer springs don’t add load support, and that’s typically the wrong direction for heavy, overland-style, backcountry camper outfits. There are numerous examples online of folks choosing to use softer go-fast springs (particularly on the rear axle) who after installation needed them to be reengineered or replaced because they were inappropriate for their load.
To their credit, I called and talked to Thuren Fab several months ago when shopping for front coils; I shared my measured axle weights and application specifics. They were direct and honest, stating that their front springs would not give the listed lift due to the weight on my front axle (winch bumper, camper, etc.), and they did not try to talk me out of using the higher-rate TufTrucks I was considering. They agreed that firmer springs were a good idea. As mentioned above, in many cases I think the rear springs from the go-faster companies are even less desirable than the fronts for heavy-duty applications; they’re not intended for the load support that heavy outfits need.
Only using products that added spring rate to the rear suspension helped me retain some of the factory-positive rake with my camper. I dislike a butt-low, negative rake. The front remained lower than the rear until I changed the front springs.
TufTruck’s heavy-duty front coils were installed May 2019. The TufTruck TTC-1224 gave me about 2.75-inches of lift, essentially leveling the chassis. Since adding the TTC-1224 I have been playing with the ride height, keeping the chassis either slightly higher in the rear, or level, depending on how I choose to adjust the rear suspension.
Compression Travel Loses?
Q] Do you think the Timbren’s inhibit your up-travel more than an add-a-leaf?
A] I have not tried to measure or document up-travel loses; supporting the load and overall handing has been the priority, while not limiting droop-travel. Coil-sprung axles have inherently better droop-travel, but they are generally inferior to leaf springs at controlling body-roll.
In addition to firmer springs, my aftermarket heavy-duty sway/roll-bars limit travel; their performance benefits far outweigh any losses. While I enjoy superior off-pavement performance, I’m realistic about my outfit’s capabilities in the dirt. An empty full-size pickup can do much more, easily and safely, than one with a higher center-of-gravity that’s carrying tons of payload.
As an aside, I am not critical of your adding lift/leveling blocks in the rear. Near the end of my 2011 Tundra project with a Four Wheel Campers slide-in, I placed two-inch blocks under the rear springs and it was fine, loaded and not. Taller or different blocks don’t always cause axle-wrap or other problems.
Tell ‘em you saw it on RoadTraveler.net.
Copyright James Langan/RoadTraveler. All Rights Reserved
Flatbed camper truck suspension tinkering and changes are not risk free, and I like to say that often “modifications lead to modifications.” Followup mods might be desirable upgrades, or unwelcome consequences.
Application specifics matter. Assuming that standard tweaks which work well on the typical unloaded/lightly-loaded truck are also good for a much heavier outfit, are often naïve.
Each May I’m in Flagstaff, Arizona, for the Overland Expo West event. Like the SEMA Show in Las Vegas, it is a vehicle-centric gathering, but that’s about the end of the major similarities. SEMA covers all things automotive (not motorcycling) and is not open to the public. Overland Expo focuses on vehicle-based overland travel, or overlanding. It is not focused on the automotive aftermarket per se but on the growing overland-travel-focused industry that supports it; it is open to everyone. The blend of professional trade show and educational opportunities have made Overland Expo West the most popular overlanding show in the Western Hemisphere. (Its sister show, Overland Expo EAST, is held each autumn in North Carolina.) These three-day weekend events are designed to educate and inspire folks to get out and explore their world.
At Expo West this year there were over 250 classes, workshops, and roundtable programs for four-wheel-drives and adventure motorcycles. Plus there was a large exhibitor exposition (400 vendors) and evening inspirational programs and parties.
Overlanding is not four-wheeling or about conquering the toughest obstacles. It is about exploring the world using self-guided means such as four-wheel-drives or motorcycles. Whether 100 miles or 10,000 miles from home, travel on everything from easy backroads to highly technical terrain. There is so much to see and enjoy beyond the blacktop. The journey and experience is as important as the destination, when overlanding. Camping is the most cost-effective way to travel, though many people alternate with hotels, hostels, or couch-surfing.
Overlanding attracts Baby Boomer retirees, adventurous young families, and people of wide-ranging demographics. Some in the overlanding industry might turn-up their noses when the words recreational vehicle or RV are used, though plenty of the bigger outfits on display and for sale (truck campers and larger) are definitely recreational vehicles. At least they are vehicles used for recreation…labels can be quite limiting. Most overland travel, however, involves more off-pavement adventures than many traditional North American RVs can handle.
Ram, Cummins, Jeep, And Much More
In recent years OEM participation has increased, and it includes both Ram (and Jeep) and Cummins, two names that mean a lot to the Turbo Diesel Register audience. The event was noticeably bigger this year; it included an improved vendor booth layout.
Other OEM exhibitors this year included: American Expedition Vehicles (AEV), BFGoodrich Tires, Four Wheel Campers, Sportsmobile, ARB-USA, Global Xpedition Vehicles, EarthRoamer, as well as dealers representing BMW, KTM, Triumph, Kawasaki, Honda, and Ural motorcycles.
If you are a gearhead that likes four-wheel-drives and/or motorcycles, mixed with some camping—either the more traditional tent accommodation or something larger and more comfortable—one of the annual Overland Expo events are fun places to enjoy the sights and activities or to go shopping for your next outfit. Because this article was written for the Turbo Diesel Register, and my column is so aptly named Still Plays With Trucks, that’s what my imagery and captions focus upon.
Copyright James Langan/RoadTraveler All Rights Reserved.
A version of this article was also published in the Turbo Diesel Register magazine.
My initial Still Plays With Trucks (SPWT) column in TDR Issue 86 detailed how my Ram 2500 picked me as much as I chose it, summer of 2014. This was largely due to the ridiculously low one-at-this-price online special, plus rebates, offered by Dave Smith Motors in Kellogg, Idaho. Kind of like an old world mail order bride and a new world groom that fall deeply in-love once wed, fate.
Had I special-ordered a new truck like my prior three diesel pickups (two Rams, one Ford), I would have selected a 3500 because they are the stoutest pickups available, not that much more money, and I generally prefer extra capacity. (The 4500 and 5500 series are not pickups, despite the bodies, but Class 4–5 medium-dutys.) In 1995 I was forced to order a second generation 2500 because Chrysler temporarily eliminated the single-rear-wheel (SRW) 3500s, otherwise I’ve been a “one-ton” guy for decades.
A 3500 Ram would have rear leaf springs instead of coils. As opinionated as I am about most things automotive, I have no strong bias for either suspension. Both designs have good and bad characteristics, and I’ve praised the positives and cursed the negatives of each. Leaf springs are more proven in pickups, simple, and spring oscillation damping is less critical. Conventional wisdom is that leaf springs are better for maximum loads, but there are many variables and contrary arguments. The OE rear coils on my ’14 2500 handle maximum loads better than the soft leaf springs on my 1995 Turbo Diesel, when Dodge overcompensated for the overly-stiff first generation suspensions. Coils are not automatically softer, weaker, or incapable—the Mercedes Unimog singlehandedly squashes such claims for trucks—spring rate and the overall design is what matters. One major advantage to rear coils is their inherent resistance to axle-wrap or wheel hop. (If you need schooling on axle-wrap, read Scott Dalgleish’s Back In The Saddle column, Turbo Diesel Register Issue 88, pages 72–73.)
Coincidentally, during the first 11,000 miles, this coil-sprung 2500 has spent an impressive 42-percent of its miles loaded to GVWR. None of my prior outfits had such a high percentage of hauling miles so early, but they also saw more daily driving, a chore my current Ram does not have to endure unless I choose. (Jan 2018 update: with 42,000 miles logged, the current number is over 75% loaded to GVWR or above.) Loaded to the GVWR with what you may be thinking….
When I write camper that is exactly what I mean, a slide-in truck camper, not a travel trailer or 5th-wheel, which are often called campers but are not the same thing. Over the past few years I’ve become a fan of the smaller and nimble slide-in pop-ups. Properly outfitted they can provide luxury accommodation in some very beautiful and remote country.
Our first RV ever was a relatively primitive, 30-year-old 1963 Bell camper that we mounted atop a custom Lodi Equipment flatbed on our ’93 Dodge W350. We were cash poor in those days, and barely scraped together the “$300 firm” asking price, paying the last $20 in coins. The Bell didn’t stay around long; within a year we sold it and bought a 1978 Avion travel trailer, which we still own. We used the trailer more initially, but our trailering slowed to a trickle as RVing competed with other hobbies and responsibilities.
For twenty years my wife Beth and I had occasionally considered a slide-in pop-up, but we never bought, partially because it would add another toy to the barn, but with no extra time. Plus, over the past decade I’ve preferred private, remote, and backcountry camping to regular campgrounds. A rooftop tent, two off-road camping trailers, and eventually two Four Wheel Campers (FWC) facilitated this type of recreation. Slide-in units are not one-size-fits-all, so buying my new Ram pushed me to sell my 2012 FWC and shop for something that fits the 2500.
Hallmark Campers History
At the end of WWII, Hallmark owner Bill Ward’s father, Hubert Monroe Ward, started making hard-sided, pop-up trailers out of surplus aircraft aluminum in Corpus Christi, Texas. Literally a garage business in the beginning, later Hubert began making pop-up campers and moved his family to Colorado. With the explosion of the RV industry in the 1960s and 70s, the Ward family and partners owned and produced a few brands, founding Hallmark Luxury Campers in 1969. Eventually the businesses were consolidated into the one brand.
Based in Fort Lupton, Hallmark has always specialized in pop-ups designed to be comfortable in the rugged extremes of Colorado’s fabulous and famous backcountry, or worldwide. They were a high-volume producer in the past, but the pace wasn’t enjoyable. More recently the focus has been on lower volume and often slightly customized or tailored units that are built-to-order. Customization takes both time and money, but I’m selfishly happy they moved in this direction. One challenge to accommodating some special requests and features is the lack of standardization. Assembly line consistency allows for better and easier quality control, but customization requires special procedures to insure details aren’t missed.
Colorado Factory Visit and Ordering
Inspecting Hallmark’s campers for the first time a few years ago at the Overland Expo West event near Flagstaff, I initially dismissed their products thinking the available amenities indicated they were not rugged outfits. I unfairly put their campers in the same class as many poorly designed and constructed RVs; I could not have been more incorrect. Researching the brand online I learned they have an enviable reputation for making stout, top-quality campers, with some unique construction features specific to their brand.
Before making such a large purchase we wanted to see more, meet the owners, and tour the factory. Fort Lupton is about 1,000 miles distant from our home in Nevada, but we had a Southwestern Colorado vacation planned for autumn 2014. After a week in the majestic San Juans, we drove north to meet the Ward family and tour their facility.
The last camper we ordered had three upholstery color options, but Hallmark offers dozens of interior fabric choices. It was invaluable to have my wife quickly and expertly narrow them to just a few, which we then discussed and agreed upon (you know who did the agreeing…). We both like earth tones and neutral colors, but admittedly I was most interested in the technical details and construction choices. The Milner model was chosen because its short length provides the most clearance in technical terrain, but Hallmark makes several models to fit different needs.
Most RVs with fiberglass sides have a separate exterior wall that is bonded to an internal wood or aluminum frame. These panels can separate from the internal structure, which is typically caused by moisture ingress that compromises the glue, extreme heat, inappropriate adhesives, or vibration and flexing. This will never be a problem with a Hallmark; their floating exterior panels are one-piece molded fiberglass, so there is nothing to delaminate. The panels are the structural exterior and interior walls and the exoskeleton frame around which the campers are built.
Specifically, the gel-coated composite wall panels consist of a fiberglass sandwich with a structural end-grain balsa core, the same material and technique used on some yachts and military aircraft. End-grain balsa is a renewable resource that imparts remarkable strength and stiffness to the sandwich panel. The end-grain configuration of balsa provides high resistance to crushing, and it is difficult to tear. These panels handle high dynamic loads and resist fatigue.
One-Piece Fiberglass Roof
Water damage concerns have been the nemesis of traditionally constructed RVs for decades. To have water damage there must be a leak, which generally comes from above. To reduce the possibility of leaks, Hallmark has used a one-piece molded fiberglass-composite roof since 2010. The cap-shaped roof covers the unit with no seams or transitions to fail or maintain. Roof loads are of little concern, aside from their impact on the center-of-gravity. Walking or sitting on the roof is permitted, which is great for photography.
Hallmark offers three roof-lift systems. The standard mechanical crank-up lift is designed to raise only the roof. Both the electric and super manual systems are rated to support and raise an additional 400 pounds, should someone need to carry that much weight atop. I chose the low-geared super manual, which raises the roof in 37-seconds when using a cordless drill (the primary method) or after five minutes of hand cranking (the backup).
Setting-up or striking camp is extremely fast and simple with this lift system, better than any camping outfit I’ve used. Unbuckling the four roof latches, stepping inside, and raising the roof can be accomplished in about one minute. We love this, particularly during inclement weather, or after driving late and simply wanting to sleep.
Wood, Aluminum, or Coosa Interior Framing
Wood, Coosa composite, or aluminum internal cabinetry framing is offered depending on customer needs and preferences. Prior to spec’ing this Milner I thought surely I’d choose the newest and exotic composite material. However, Coosa saves little weight over wood, the cost is high, and wood holds a screw best and is the most repairable material should serious (collision) damage occur. With the molded fiberglass design protecting the internals, and living in dry-air Nevada, we chose wood for the interior framing. One-inch foam block insulation is standard.
All Weather Comfort Soft Wall Design
Above I shared that Hallmark designs their campers to be comfortable regardless of the temperatures. Winter camping capabilities are import to me and where many RVs fail. Hallmark is proud of their cold weather performance, stating their pop-ups will hold 70-degrees inside when it’s minus 20-degrees Fahrenheit outside. Of course this includes using the furnace, but -20 is pretty cold.
The standard two-layer polyester-reinforced marine-awning-material soft walls contain a third layer of 1/4–inch closed-cell foam insulation. These thick soft walls feel substantial, and our Milner has an optional fourth-layer of Mylar reflective insulation in the walls. All our windows and vents have snap-on insulated and upholstered covers. A recent photograph on Hallmark’s website shows Canadian customers Mike and Kim Baird’s 2001 Cummins Turbo Diesel with their new 2015 K2 camper. The outfit is covered in several inches of snow in Estes Park, Colorado, and the caption says: “Any Season. Anywhere. Anytime.” I say, ’nuff said.
Camping and Adventure Travel Exposition At Mormon Lake, Arizona
Overland Expo West is the premiere annual gathering for overland and backcountry travel, an event more important than the SEMA Show for those seeking vehicle-supported adventures. The educational, hands-on, gear shopping, and social opportunities are almost endless, plus it is open to the public, and includes motorcycles. For more about Overland Expo (OE) events visit their website at overlandexpo.com.
During the 2015 event, Flagstaff received a deluge of rain, snow, and resulting mud, combined with unseasonably cold temperatures, but this crowd can handle a little challenge. This year there was some wind, but it was generally very pleasant with seasonal weather.
Ram Truck’s New 2500 Off-Road Package
There is no doubt the Ram Power Wagon is king of full-size trucks in technical terrain, but the Power Wagon package is not available with the Cummins 6.7L for those that prefer the mighty ISB. However, there is a new off-road package for the 2017 Ram 2500 series trucks, including those with the supreme diesel engine from Columbus, Indiana.
Ram conducted a small press conference during OE to talk about their off-highway prowess and offerings. When they shared details on the Ram 2500 Off-road 4×4 Package, I listen intently. The new value-priced option package includes:
-Large front tow hooks
-Fender flares, black or body color (to stop flung debris)
-Bilstein monotube shocks, tuned for the 5-link rear coil suspension and weight
-Firestone LT on/off-road tires, 18” or 20” (less wheel and more sidewall is better off-pavement)
-Transfer-case skid plate (it’s small, but something; a fuel tank skid would be nice)
-Anti-spin rear differential
-“4X4 OFF-ROAD” decals on the tailgate and both sides
This package will be available on almost every trim, cab, wheelbase, gas or diesel-powered 2500 by the third quarter of 2016. Regular cabs were noticeably absent from the list, likely because most are purchased for commercial applications.
Attending this annual event is part of my work, but engaging the folks and scene is a pleasure. The following pictures and captions highlight some of the Cummins-powered standouts.