Dirt bikes, deserts and camping fit together perfectly. But it’s a gritty, dusty business when the winds kick up. Towing a toy hauler with a refined four-wheel-drive crew cab changes the experience
As a lifelong dirt bike guy, I’ve explored virtually every way of hauling bikes, gear and passengers to our off-road adventures. Pickups, vans, cars with trailers, pickups with trailers, motorhomes with trailers and even a bike strapped on top of a car. Depending on the circumstances, each method has its strengths and limitations. But decade after decade, there is no denying that a good, stout full-size pickup stands tall in versatility and capability.
Consider the bandwidth of a pickup like the Ram 2500 Outdoorsman, carrying an MSRP of $49,845 as tested. With four doors and 4.3 feet of bed width between wheel wells, it can hold up to six passengers and three dirt bikes (four in a pinch). Properly outfitted, it can tow up to 12,500 pounds, if you want to haul a rolling motel along behind you. And thanks to steady advancements in seating comfort, insulation, powertrain and suspension systems, it’s nearly as comfortable as a luxury car inside. It’s a bunch roomier, too.
Ram reports that some 70 percent of its pickup buyers participate in some sort of outdoor recreation, and thus the suitably named Outdoorsman is configured just for people like us. We put one to the test by pulling an XLR Hyper Lite 27HFS toy-box trailer into the Southern California desert for a weeklong riding trip. Including three motorcycles, a full tank of fresh water and personal effects, the trailer weighed a bit more than 7,000 pounds — vastly within the Ram 2500’s towing capacity. Still, more than 3 tons of weight necessitated a worthy hitch, and so our supplying Hyper Lite dealer, Camping World of Bakersfield, California, outfitted the Ram with a weight-distribution hitch and friction-type sway control.
The dynamic performance of the Ram with the trailer was impressive. Despite the unfortunate timing of strong desert winds — at times exceeding 60 mph — the trailer towed extremely well. Even the combination of side winds and passing semitrucks never shook the solid feel of the Ram and trailer. I am sure that the excellent hitch assembly played a part in this, but there’s no denying that the Ram led the way. Its solid-axle front and rear suspension with coil springs and trailing arms (instead of traditional rear leaf springs) proved extremely capable under duress.
Stability is a huge safety issue in towing, but so is an often-overlooked feature — brakes. The Ram’s big four-wheel discs with twin-piston calipers did an admirable job of getting the combination slowed, and the additional advantage of a standard trailer-brake controller, located within easy reach on the instrument panel, provided a welcome extra level of braking force on demand.
Aside from stability, there’s nothing more important in a tow vehicle than power. The traditional mainstream choices of gas or diesel V-8s are being widened today with turbo V-6s, but the Ram 2500 Outdoorsman relies on Ram’s well-proven 6.4-liter gas V-8. Producing 410 horsepower and 429 lb-ft of torque, the $1,495 optional Hemi proved way above adequate in acceleration, grade climbing and even passing power.
Although full-size pickups now routinely approach and even surpass 20 mpg on the road without trailers, towing still extracts a toll on fuel economy, and the Ram/Hyper Lite combination factored in at 8.2 mpg average for our 700-mile trip. With its generously sized 31-gallon fuel tank for reduced fuel stops, the Ram still required more than $100 a tank to fill. That’s not exactly cheap, but then again, neither is a week’s worth of motels and breakfast, lunch and dinner out for all passengers. And so, despite essentially doubling the fuel bill compared to an empty pickup, the benefits of riding and camping for multiple days simply can’t be duplicated at motels and fast-food joints.
Transmissions often receive less attention than engines when buyers are looking at new trucks, but they are almost as deserving of notice. The smaller ratio gaps afforded by the Ram’s six-speed automatic reduce noise, offer smoother shifting and run the engine closer to peak efficiency than wider-ratio four-speed transmissions of recent years. The end result is a much more pleasant travel experience and improved fuel economy. In the Ram’s case, a tow/haul feature and manual mode further increase driver control when pulling a trailer up and down grades.
Our dirt bike destination was near the enormous Johnson Valley off-road area near Lucerne, California. Pulling off the pavement here and taking in the expansive sweep of the horizon was a reminder of just how wild the desert is — and how far from help you can easily get yourself. That is why the Outdoorsman’s electronically selectable 2WD/4WD system was so valuable. Pulling 7,000-plus pounds of tandem-axle trailer along a good hard-packed dirt road is easy enough with a 2WD vehicle, but throw in sand, grades and off-camber sections, rocks and ruts, and most especially mud, and having 4WD becomes essential for getting in and out safely.
SoCal’s desert threw everything but mud at us, and the Ram’s system worked well in all of it, with just one or two instances of needing to engage 4WD Low to get turned around in sand. The aggressively lugged Firestone Transforce AT LT275/70R18 tires helped enormously here and didn’t penalize us with excessive road din on the highway. The tires run 60 psi in front and 80 psi in back, helping to increase their workload while also maximizing fuel economy. Two giant steel tow hooks in front help you help others, or yourself, should anyone get stuck.
So the baseline requirements of dynamic stability, braking capability, power and transmission, and off-highway performance all checked out strongly for the Outdoorsman. For our purposes, the next level of importance was storage capacity. As mentioned above, the bed is plenty wide enough between the wheel wells to accept the often-cited sheet of 4 x 8-foot plywood. However, the standard bed length of 6.4 feet is not long enough to store multiple motorcycles with the tailgate closed. (The bed length grows nearly 2 feet with the tailgate down, however it’s impractical or impossible to drive this way with a trailer. )
Fortunately, the dedicated storage area at the rear of the Hyper Lite trailer accommodated three dirt bikes and our gear bags easily, leaving just one additional dirt bike, a portable Yamaha EF2800i generator, gas cans, tools, a loading ramp and a few sundries for the pickup bed. Even so, the tailgate would close only with the bike skewed slightly sideways, and while this was an acceptable solution for us, two or more dirt bikes are best accommodated in an 8-foot bed, although that adds to a truck’s wheelbase, reducing maneuverability and adding costs. Everything is a compromise.
Two of the best utility features of the Outdoorsman are its sprayed-on bed liner and its built-in fifth-wheel hitch anchor points. The spray-on liner takes the worry out of scratching a paint finish with cargo (and it always happens), and its grippy surface texture helps keep items from sliding around during transit. And although the travel trailer connected via a typical Class IV hitch, having integrated attachment points for mounting a fifth-wheel hitch further expands your options. Steel tie-down rings welded into the corners of the truck bed provide strong attachment points for bike tie-downs. And in an unusual feature, the tailgate locks right along with the doors using the remote key fob, fully securing the truck bed when the folding tonneau is installed.
Incidentally, for $475 Ram offers a stowable tent sized to fit the Ram’s bed, adding camping capability with a minimum of additional equipment, when extra guests tag along. You can find it in the lifestyle accessories section at www.mopar.com. One other plus for the Ram is a rearview camera that lets the driver check on the bed contents onscreen.
The race to infuse maximum features into vehicles continues in the pickup ranks. Inside the Ram are several innovative solutions, such as under-floor storage areas behind the front seats. Accessed by a hinged panel beneath the rear floor mats, each is sized about like a six-pack and can hold occasionally used items such as tow lines, ties-downs, window cleaners and cloth, conveniently placed but out of the way. The bins can also keep cell phones, wallets and other valuables out of sight while you are off adventuring away from the vehicle — although ironically, these secret bins are visible below the truck, near the huge boxed ladder frame, to anyone with attentive eyes.
The Outdoorsman has a multipurpose rear bench seat. The lower cushions fold up and rearward in two sections, maximizing floor area for storing large items that you don’t want out in the weather, such as electronics, appliance boxes or pets in their cages. Beneath the seat are versatile flip-up bins that help keep modestly sized items such as power tools from sliding around in the interior. Burly rubber floor mats protect the carpeting front and rear. And lastly, a power sliding rear window helps let out stuffy air quickly. Headroom, shoulder room and legroom are all excellent, meaning that the crew-cab Ram can truly serve as a comfortable tourer as well as a utility vehicle.
The command center is, naturally, the driver’s seat. In the Outdoorsman’s case, the accoutrements include a 10-way power adjustability that makes finding just the right level of support easy. This includes power lumbar support, which can be an essential ally during long towing days (or after a little bit too much outdoor activity!). In a handy diversion from the typical practice of providing twin captain’s chair seating, the Outdoorsman has a three-passenger front seat, with the center perch accessible by flipping up a multilevel console sized to hold an iPad or other portable electronics. While occasionally useful, this extra seat does not adjust, meaning that knees of taller passengers may touch the instrument panel.
The jump seat also lacks a dedicated airbag or shoulder harness, although it does have its own seatbelt. As a result, it is best for occasional use. Seat and steering wheel heaters expand usefulness in cold climates.
The color multi-information display (MID) that is now standard on many vehicles is present here, with a huge range of information and data available. MID features on the Outdoorsman include individual tire pressures, audio system, fuel economy, remaining fuel range, outside temperature and more. Accessing all the features takes time and practice, but once the system is learned, much of the information is highly useful. For instance, knowing the remaining fuel range lets you extend your driving stints, and knowing individual tire pressures adds peace of mind, while letting you spot a tire puncture early. Measuring 7.4 inches, the color navigation screen isn’t the largest in the business, and the inability to enter destinations on the fly is inconvenient, albeit an excellent safety feature. Nevertheless, it’s indisputably a great travel aid.
With portable electronics now central in our lives, interfacing them with our vehicles has become important. To suit, the Outdoorsman has a 120-volt AC, 150-watt outlet, three 12-volt DC power ports, USB and MP3 ports and an SD memory card reader all within easy reach in the front seating area. There are also twin glove boxes and various storage bins. This isn’t just handy; it’s essential for keeping the peace and people connected as they strive to get out of town and away from it all. That little irony is inescapable when you consider that the Outdoorsman helps you escape those very things in the great outdoors.
Personally, after years of roughing it with bikes in the dust and wind, heat and snow, and dodging scorpions, mosquitoes and even cougars, I was more than happy to study how an off-road adventure could play out if one stepped up and corralled all the right equipment in a toy hauler. I’m happy to report that after a week with the Ram 2500 Outdoorsman crew cab 4×4, the 27-foot Hyper Lite trailer and a trio of competent new dirt bikes, I like it just fine. The key was the steady, capable and comfortable pickup, followed by the roomy and accommodating living quarters with plenty of bike storage.
But surprisingly, the feature I liked best of all was actually the simplest — the doors. They kept the clean inside and the dirt outside. Right where it belongs.
John L. Stein served as a charter editor of Automobile magazine and road-test editor of Cycle, the world’s largest motorcycle magazine. His expertise stems from decades of automotive, motorcycle, truck, trailer and marine product testing. Competing at Daytona and Sebring sharpened his analytical skills — as did racing a kangaroo through Australia’s outback on a motorcycle.