El Tigre–Backcountry Adventure Wheels

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | December 2, 2014      

Stephen Dilk

Wiser people than I have often observed that the journey is more important than the destination. Whether it’s slogging up the side of a peak or bushwhacking through a jungle wall of scrub oak, the experience of striving to persevere over these hardships provides one with a profound sense of appreciation for the holiness of the moment; while the challenge acts as a crucible washing the subject clean in the purity of the struggle.

In my particular case, while driving a junk-car that grumbled, creaked, screeched, and shuddered like a spacecraft on reentry, my “journey” began and ended when I got out of my car in one piece. Anything that went wrong during the outing seemed small compared to returning to my auto and driving home.

After several such experiences, it was time for an upgrade. Thus, I dropped down the rabbit-hole of researching and buying the optimal skiing and climbing live-in “adventure” vehicle: in my case a 1997 Astro Tiger Provan.

El Tigre

El Tigre — 1997 Astro Tiger Provan

I started by judging the relative limitations and strengths of possible vehicles. Essentially, the unit had to be perennially livable (and in cold temps), yet rugged enough to handle snowy, rough roads and come in at under ten thousand dollars (my total budget).

That, in itself, is not a tough bill to handle, as virtually any car is livable under the correct conditions, but I defined livable as, “the act of being able to stand up in the abode and have running water and heat at all times of the year if so desired.” I saw these features as absolutely critical for maintaining comfort, sanity, and health while skiing and climbing for extended periods of time, yet limiting because those criteria do not leave many choices.

The initial field consisted of a pickup with camper shell, a cargo van with extensive modifications to the exterior and interior like a Sprinter, Econoline, or Delica, or a hippy wagon (read: Vanagon, Toyota 4 x 4 van, VW van).

My next set of criteria reflects my dual existence as a skier and climber. I desired more interior storage space for skis and ski boots (especially to be able to dry boot liners), an ability to clamber into the rear from the front without getting out, and most critical: snow reliability.

Unlike many climbers, gas efficiency is a less critical feature for me; although a consideration, I realized it was an easy trade-off.

Other trade-offs exemplify my winter needs. For example, converted Econolines or Sprinters have the awesome trait of being able to be hidden in plain sight. People living in them always tout their ability to boondock in urban areas because they blend in so well. A rig like the truck with the camper shell is more conspicuous. Personally, however, I envisioned being away from urban areas the majority of time living in the vehicle, so urban camouflage became a low priority.

I was also fortunate to live with a roommate who owned a Toyota truck that had a Four-Wheel camper on back. We took it to the Tetons so I was able to really study the rig. I focus on this set-up because at the time it was at the top of my list. Trucks have the ability to get just about anywhere and with the camper on back it met my livable criteria. (In fact, if you want a 4×4 camper, the classic slide-in on a pre owned 4-wheel-drive truck is still one of the most easily obtainable and more or less affordable ways to go — and super versatile.)

Unfortunately, the biggest limiting factor of these rigs (and VW vans) for me is their price tag. The high costs for a youthful truck and a middle aged camper discouraged me. I felt like I was running too high of a risk getting a truck with 150,000 miles on it and a Reagan-era camper. I began to drift away from the truck camper combo, although with more cash, that would still be my number one choice.

Cargo vans excluding Sprinters are on the other end of the spectrum. A cursory glance at Craigslist will reveal a new supply of vans almost daily. Often, these vans are mechanically sound, but may only exhibit some cosmetic wear. Consequently, it seemed like a great way forward. Internally, vans can be modified in almost any way — time, money, and imagination being the only limiting factors. They are easy to repair, hardy, decent to good in the snow, and can ultimately be uplifted to a proper 4×4 (an expensive move).

For me however, modification seemed like a daunting task. I am woefully inept at basic home repair/skills/design. I also do not own any tools, nor do I have a garage to store the necessary parts and tools.

I assumed I could figure things out as I went along, but did not want to spend my entire summer completing the project when I’d rather go climbing. In other words, motivation must remain high, and focus iron clad. If Orpheus could not manage to save his beloved by merely walking straight ahead for a spell, there was no way I was going to see this potential marathon project through. Thus, modifying a van seemed increasingly less appealing.

Around the time despair began to visit daily, a friend suggested a radical choice. The Astro Tiger built by Provan. He asked, “What is not to like about an Astro van outfitted with a mini camper/RV cabin on the back that has the option to pop up to 6’4”?” To me the answer is not much.

Other technical information enticed me further. When not popped up, the GT will fit in a normal car garage. I learned later that Astro Tiger Provans come in two styles: the GT and the XL. The difference being the GT is the pop-top while the XL is a permanently popped top that is made of fiberglass and has built in cabinetry.

My friend went on to extol more virtues: room to spread out, two beds — one above the cab when the top is popped and the other being the folded out couch, a fully contained living space which includes a propane stove, furnace, three-way refrigerator, hot and cold water, a shower and head, generator, coach battery, and storage space.

The vehicle itself is built on the Chevy Astro van chassis, which comes as a RWD or AWD, and has a V6 Vortec engine. Parts are abundant and cheap and apparently everyone and their grandmother has the know-how to do repairs. To my surprise, after some research, I found that the GT models even get around 20-23 miles per gallon on the highway and around 15-17 in cities.

Lastly, and most importantly for my needs, I found that the added weight on the rear axle allows this van-camper configuration to have decent to great traction in the snow (I could only afford the RWD version).

All sounded great on paper. The only problem was finding one. Obtaining an Astro Tiger is definitely a crux constraint for these vehicles. Due to the cessation of production for the Chevy Astro vans in 2005, Provan (the company that makes Tigers) stopped producing them. Even during peak production, not many of these vehicles hit the road. With a reputation for longevity, people do not readily resell them.

Fortunately for me it was love at first sight. Something about the vehicle struck a chord of rightness in my heart so resounding that I was willing to put forth extreme effort to obtain one. Luckily, after nearly three months of fitful searches and one aborted purchase attempt in Kansas, I bought a 1997 Astro Tiger GT with 77,000 miles on it.

The mascot

The mascot

badass stickers from the previous owners

Badass stickers from the previous owners.

Shower and bathroom converted to gear storage.

Shower and bathroom converted to gear storage.

I have learned a few things since buying the rig. One main drawback to owning a fairly unique vehicle such as the Tiger is the complete loss of anonymity and sometimes even privacy. Meeting people out in town, I now always hear “I saw the Tiger on the road” or something similar. Tigers also elicit curiosity, which manifests itself in the form of many knocks on the door from people who want to peek inside.

Despite these unforeseen drawbacks, I am happy to report that the Tiger is performing admirably. I am still working out the kinks of owning a mini RV, but thus far I cannot point out a major flaw that disgusts me. These days, I am actually looking forward to my journeys on the road. In my rig, they can be even more fun than the adventure!

(Having grown up in upstate New York, guest blogger Steve Dilk considers the worst conditions in Colorado to be manna from heaven. What he may lack in skill and style, he makes up for in enthusiasm. When not working, skiing or climbing, you’ll find him moonlighting at Cripple Creek Backcountry in Carbondale, CO.)


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23 Responses to “El Tigre–Backcountry Adventure Wheels”

  1. Bob Shattuck December 2nd, 2014 11:05 am

    Come on, nothing beats “sleeping” in the back of a subaru or jeep cherokee ( and no, she doesn’t want you touching her ) in the fetal posirion and your back constantly reminded where the wheel wells are . . . the coyotes prowling around outside, taking turns with the snow plow that comes around every five minutes . . . YEAH, the Tiger looks plush. Congrats.

  2. Louie III December 2nd, 2014 12:46 pm

    Awesome! I want one!

  3. MK December 2nd, 2014 12:52 pm

    Congrats on your GT!
    We have a Provan Tiger CX, which is based upon a 1 ton 4×4 diesel truck chassis.
    The coach part of the rig is similar and best of all pretty easy to upgrade, update and rebuild as you go along (sort of a constant, they are like boats in that regard). We love our Tiger, It’s been our parking lot chalet and means for winter ski safari for a while now.

  4. Lou Dawson 2 December 2nd, 2014 1:27 pm

    Um, yes, who needs a shower?

  5. Crazy Horse December 2nd, 2014 5:32 pm

    Just bought a 19′ TranStar mini RV on a Chevy C30 dualy van chassis. All the extras–generator, big refrigerator, shower, separate head. Drove it back from Denver to Driggs in the early Nov. -18 freeze with 45mph headwinds. The heater is awesome— comfy at -15F. And not bad over Teton pass in the snow. No Audi Q8 or even a Tiger CX, but hey, you see more scenery at 55!

    Sure, I’d rather have a 90k Mercedes Sprinter and get 22mpg, but you can buy a lot of fuel for the difference between $3,250and 90k!

    ps Teton snow is made of air, not water

  6. Lou Dawson 2 December 2nd, 2014 5:55 pm

    Crazy, that’s great! Guest blog?

  7. MK December 2nd, 2014 6:05 pm

    The subject of winter RV use is not well covered.
    Even in placed like expeditionportal.com…

    Most RV related sites think of Winterizing as something you do when you store an RV in the off season.

    There are a lot of great tips and tricks that are being passed around in some forums here and there (TGR comes to mind), and from person to person.

    It would be great to see someone really dig into it and post a comprehensive guide.

    Haha, Snow in the PNW is definitely made of water…

  8. Scott Nelson December 2nd, 2014 6:21 pm

    I think Wildsnow needs to dig into something like this 🙂

  9. Craig December 2nd, 2014 6:27 pm

    Knock, knock, can we have a peek inside, More pics please!

  10. Lou Dawson 2 December 2nd, 2014 6:47 pm

    Yeah, winterizing our slide-in camper, what a yearly hassle, pretty demoralizing really. Especially last winter when I used cheapo antifreeze and busted some water lines, resulting in me donning my plumber hat and low waisted pants. They should design these things so they don’t have to be “winterized.” Lou

  11. Lisa Dawson December 2nd, 2014 6:58 pm

    I love road trips! It adds charm when the dish rag freezes to the wall — my childhood memory of winter RVing at Mammoth Mountain parking lot.

  12. Jernej December 3rd, 2014 12:13 am

    A few weeks ago got a barely used Citroën Jumper (you might know it as Dodge ProMaster) in L3H2 dimension variety with pretty much everything included (lots of insulation, heating, AC, shower, inverter, fridge/freezer, boot dryer etc). The only thing missing is cruise control (and possibly some solar panels) but that will be retrofitted soon.

    Unfortunately Nov/Dec are also the busiest time at work and I just don’t have the time to go out and test it (not that there’s much snow in relative proximity) but we’ve at least been busy modifying it so it’s ready for any skiing/kayaking/climbing/biking that comes up.

  13. SR December 3rd, 2014 6:36 am

    Extremely helpful blog and comments for me, as an FJ doesn’t really afford room for two with gear. Thanks for the great info!

  14. Crazy Horse December 3rd, 2014 6:52 am

    Lou, I have a Canada trip planned for Feb. If I survive LOL I’ll let you know how it worked out. I owned a diesel Chinook single axle high top 19 footer a few years back that was my ski trip camper for about 80k miles. At that point I lived outside of Wilson up Heck-of-a-Hill road. Never failed to make it home in spite of being 2wd. Tonnage matters!

  15. Lou Dawson 2 December 3rd, 2014 6:54 am

    PSI in rolling traction has an amazing effect on ice and snow. But when you need to stop it can be a different story. Lou

  16. Paulpalf December 3rd, 2014 11:29 pm

    I went through this same decision scenario a year, though I guess with a slightly larger budget. Ended up with a 2002 VW Eurovan camper with the Winnebago camper conversion. Love the van, took it skiing all last winter and mountain biking all summer.
    Such a shame VW didn’t import the vans after ’03 as they are now getting expensive – in Europe there is vastly more choice and many companies selling conversion components, everything from pop-tops to folding beds and kitchens. A german friend told me he used to buy ex-Austrian postal service 4×4 sprinters and convert those for camping..at a fraction of the price of a Sprinter in North America.

  17. Erik Erikson December 4th, 2014 5:06 am

    Looks like a nice vehicle, but for shure it has a plastic – roof instead of a sheet-metal one, right?
    I always wondered (and never could get a real definit answer) if a plastic roof offers enough safety in case of a lightning-strike when you are sitting in your car (a metal roof would be safe cause it forms a faraday cage).
    For me that´s an issue, cause I am quite afraid of lightning in the mountains (knew to persons who died from a strike) and spent not only one night in the car during storms with lightning on high alpine passes. Happily under a metal-roof,
    Maybe some wildsnower has answers to that question,I would appreciate it

  18. Stephen Dilk December 6th, 2014 10:50 am

    Hey Erik Erikson,

    I am happy to report that the roof is actually comprised of very thin aluminum! The only plastic on the roof is in the form of the vent covers. There is also a metal utility bar that circumnavigates the entire roof. I have not attached anything to it yet, but have hoisted myself up to the roof using them. Great point about lightening, the thought had never really crossed my mind!

    Your post prompted me to start thinking about roof structural limits and read that the roof can hold “hundreds and hundreds of pounds” which is nice, but the problem comes from being able to lift the pop top when there is some snow/ice on it. After a little research, I found some load lifters (similar to the arms that hold up a trunk door) which other rvers have used successfully to help lift the pop top when it is under a strain.

  19. Stephen Dilk December 6th, 2014 10:51 am

    Also, I would like to thanks everyone for the exciting and thoughtful responses!

  20. Jim December 9th, 2014 7:24 pm

    I went thru the same analysis, and though I haven’t bought, the best bang for the buck seems to be a Toyota Sienna with AWD. Needs a pop top though. The Chrysler van was really nice for a ski camp in WA last spring, with nice little convenience lights. All the seats fold flat into the floor so a rental worked fine.. For heat, I just started it up. No standing headroom is the trade off for low price, awd. Ultimate is the stand up cargo vans now by Mercedes, Ford, and Chrysler with standing headroom. Add some insulation,..etc, but thats a big project.

  21. Stephen Dilk December 10th, 2014 9:08 pm

    @ Jim,

    I hear you, those (new 4 x 4!) cargo vans are real nice and definitely a dream. The Sienna set up is awesome too. I ran into a professional climber in the Black Canyon and he was rocking his Sienna real hard.

    I would also mention to anyone interested to take a look at the book Tiny Homes on Wheels. Really inspirational stuff and lots of great ideas.

  22. SR December 22nd, 2014 1:11 pm

    Has anyone tried a converted U-Haul or other moving truck/van for these purposes? Probably random chance, but I’ve seen a few lately that have made it up decently rough roads so it got me wondering.

  23. Listo Magisto. October 24th, 2018 10:20 pm

    Curious how much you wound up spending on it the Tiger? You were able to get one of these rigs with only 77K for under 10 grand tho? Every Tiger I see for sale online (mainly around Denver) seem like they’re priced quite high.

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