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EarthRoamers Go Where Other RVs Fear to Tread

Bill Swails is a world traveler and lover of rugged outdoor adventure, so back in the late 1990s when he wanted an RV that would allow him to pursue his passion for exploring, it dawned on him that he was going to have to build his own.

“What I wanted to be able to do was drive around the world – hop in a vehicle, take off, and some years later come back from the other direction,” says Swails, whose adventures include climbing 39 of Colorado’s 54 14,000-foot-elevation mountain peaks, as well as Mount Rainier in Washington.

Swails initially used a Dodge diesel pickup equipped with a pop-up camper for his travels, which included a year-long adventure traveling through Alaska and British Columbia. However, he found the pickup and camper wanting.

“The camper was too small and wasn’t designed for the colder temperatures,” he explains. “The Dodge is a good truck, but I thought I could make it better with some improvements.”

EarthRoamer President and CEO Bill Swails is pictured standing next to one of his XV-LT vehicles outside of the company’s headquarters and manufacturing facility in Dacono, Colo. Demand is soaring for the rugged RVs, with Swails reporting a backlog of orders into late 2012.

Based upon feedback he received from fellow adventurers, he says he became convinced there was a market for RVs built for rugged conditions. A self-described tinkerer who spent his teenage years rebuilding engines in his father’s Volkswagen repair shop and then went on to earn an engineering degree from Ohio State and an MBA from UCLA, Swails launched his company, EarthRoamer, in 2002. The company debuted its first vehicle in June 2003 at a Ford Motor Co. event celebrating the company’s 100-year anniversary.

“From there things just took off,” says Swails, EarthRoamer’s president and CEO. “Our first full year in production we built seven vehicles; the year after we did 14; the year after that we did 28 – so we were doubling every year.”

No Ordinary RV
Compared to most RV manufacturers, production levels for EarthRoamer are very modest. But, as Swails is quick to note, an EarthRoamer Xpedition vehicle is worlds apart from the average RV.

It starts with the vehicle itself. The company’s mainstay, the EarthRoamer XV-LT, is based on a Ford Super Duty F-550 four-wheel drive cab chassis featuring a 19,500-pound gross vehicle weight rating and a 10,000-pound towing capacity. EarthRoamer equips the XV-LT with extra-large tires measuring 37 inches in diameter and a foot wide. (Tires measuring 41 inches in diameter and one foot wide are available as an upgrade.)

To give the EarthRoamer its all-weather capability, the camper body is built using sandwich construction, with a balsa core reinforced by a tough, woven fiberglass exterior and interior. The camper body itself is mounted to the truck frame with a three-point system, which Swails says allows the truck frame to “flex” as needed during movement over uneven terrain.

Given that XV-LT’s rugged construction makes it possible to take it to locations where other RVs would fear to tread, perhaps it’s not surprising that it’s designed to operate off the grid. It’s equipped with an 85-gallon water tank and a 90-gallon diesel fuel tank.

“Solar and diesel power everything on this vehicle,” notes Swails, who describes EarthRoamer as a “green” vehicle. He notes that even the smallest XV-LT is equipped with three high-grade solar power panels capable of generating 880 watts, and its engine can run on biodiesel. A high-capacity AGM battery bank capable of storing generated solar power, marine-grade wiring and energy-efficient appliances also contribute to the vehicle’s energy efficiency, he adds.

EarthRoamer’s XV-LT comes in seven variations, including two-door and four-door models that range in lengths from 23 feet for the basic version to 27 feet for the “super-stretch” version. Despite the somewhat compact nature of the RV, the XV-LT doesn’t skimp on amenities, which includes a king-sized bed located in the vehicle’s cabover section. It is also furnished with stainless steel appliances, a pullout pantry, solid maple wood accents, granite countertops, and a cassette toilet and wetbath.

The RV manufacturer also makes a second vehicle, the XV-JP, which is based upon the Jeep Rubicon Unlimited edition. Once in camp, the XV-JP’s Loftop can be deployed to provide nearly 9 feet of interior stand-up height and a queen-sized bed in the loft. XV-JP models come equipped with 25 gallons of fresh water capacity, a cassette toilet, and inside shower, sink and cooking facilities.

‘Typical’ Buyers for a Non-Typical RV
With so much detail built into every EarthRoamer, it begs the questions: Who is the company’s “typical” customer and what are they doing with their RVs?

“Usually they have some other passion or activity that they are really involved in and they’re looking at this (an EarthRoamer) as a tool that helps them enjoy that passion even more,” Swails says. “And that can be anything. I have a number of photographers who want to get out in the most remote places and spend the most time to get the best pictures. I’ve also had customers into horseback riding or dual-sport motorcycles that use our vehicles to get to remote locations that they couldn’t do with a traditional RV.”

EarthRoamer XV-LT models are built tough, based upon a Ford Super Duty F-550 four-wheel drive cab chassis and equipped standard with extra-large tires measuring 37 inches in diameter and one foot wide.

Many customers have used their EarthRoamer vehicles to travel Alaska and Canada, and a good number have traveled in them in Central America. One customer has even traveled the world in his EarthRoamer.

“I think probably the biggest thing is, it’s people who can’t see themselves in a traditional RV park. That’s not where they want to go,” Swails says. “They want to go to that remote lake, that mountain pass and to expand the limits they can explore. And they want to be completely self-contained.”

In terms of customer demographics, Swails says most of his clientele are couples in their 40s, 50s or 60s, typically successful business owners, and they have “an appreciation for quality and are willing to pay for it.”

As one might expect with an RV built to such exacting standards, EarthRoamers aren’t cheap. Basic models retail for $232,000 while top-of-the-line models sell for $375,000. The RVs are sold consumer-direct.

While the majority of EarthRoamer units are sold with standard features, some degree of customization is possible. Swails says upgrades have included everything from high-end sound systems to a built-in wine rack to a fly fishing package.

Back from a Bumpy Ride
Swails is the first to acknowledge EarthRoamer had a bumpy ride in recent years. The company enjoyed strong growth in its early years, selling more than 100 XV-LTs between 2002 and 2008. It was recognized by Inc. Magazine in 2008 as the 587th fastest-growing private company nationwide and the ninth fastest-growing private company in the Denver metro area.

But in early 2008, just as EarthRoamer moved into a new 56,000-square-foot facility in Lafayette, Colo., the economy nosedived and diesel fuel prices climbed to more than $4.50 a gallon – a double-whammy that resulted in a dramatic decline in business. The company declared bankruptcy in late 2009.

Despite the humbling setback, Swails was undeterred. He used private funds to purchase the assets of the business and re-launched the company in March 2010 with three business partners – Eric Rexroth, the company’s former production manager, and Tyler Tatro and Mike Funari, the company’s former service managers.

Despite their rugged exterior, EarthRoamer vehicles come loaded with plenty of amenities, including a king-sized bed in the cabover section and stainless steel appliances.

When EarthRoamer restarted operations, the primary focus was servicing the vehicles it sold. However, as diesel fuel prices declined and fortunes improved for the company’s high-end clientele, demand for EarthRoamer vehicles has bounced back, according to Swails, who reports he now has a backlog of orders.

As a result of the uptick in business, EarthRoamer recently hired four new workers (it employs a total of 18 people) and is looking to add 7,000 square feet of production space to its existing 17,000 square feet of rented office and manufacturing space in the small community of Dacono, Colo., about 25 miles north of Denver.

Swails acknowledges EarthRoamer will always be a niche product, but says he has high hopes for the company moving forward based upon the level of consumer interest he’s seeing for the company’s vehicles.

“We’re seeing a renewed demand for these products that’s really something,” he says, speculating that lower diesel prices and stabilized finances of potential purchasers are two of the primary driving factors. While it’s physically possible for EarthRoamer to build an RV in about eight weeks, Swails says with the company’s current backlog of orders it would currently take considerably longer for the company to get a product to a new customer.

“With our demand what it is now,” he says, “if someone booked an order today we would be scheduling that for August next year – and that’s with an accelerated production rate.”