The brawny vehicle that Scott Petry hopes to pilot away from his California driveway this summer represents a whole new mode of seeing the...

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The brawny vehicle that Scott Petry hopes to pilot away from his California driveway this summer represents a whole new mode of seeing the world. It could take him to places a traditional RV could never get near, such as the Sahara desert. Or a Central American jungle. And, for a bold few, even the North Pole.

With these hulking vehicles — built as tough as tanks — expedition travel, long a European tradition, has finally found a niche in America. While some intrepid travelers like Petry are building their own “extreme RVs,” others can opt for the German-made Unicat, whose top-of-the-line $600,000 model has a queen-size bed warmed by radiant heat and custom-cut, no-shake dish drawers come standard.

Avi Meyers was so impressed with the Unicat that, despite its hefty price, he simply had to have one. The Palo Alto, Calif., resident then became the first Unicat dealer in the United States.

All-terrain, four-wheel-drive vehicles such as the British Land Rover put a new twist on the expedition camping trip, starting in 1948. Overland journeys from Europe to the Himalayas or an African safari became possible and popular.

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Now, with the bruisingly solid Unicats; their smaller cousins, EarthRoamers; and a variety of home-built models, a fervent and expanding community of aficionados has taken shape, complete with magazines and Web sites that cater to their adventurous spirit.

No glitz here

In Tampa, Fla., four months ago at the largest RV show in the country, people formed long lines for a chance to peek inside a Unicat and get the specs.


Unicat Americas: Palo Alto, Calif., 415-515-6644 or

EarthRoamer : Broomfield, Colo., 720-304-3174 or

Overland Journal : A new magazine dedicated to expedition vehicle travel; first issue was published last month,

Online discussion : is a bustling compendium of travel tips and vehicle discussions.

If they were expecting a glimpse of glitz, given the $600,000 price tag, they were disappointed, Unicat founder Thomas Ritter said.

“We don’t spend money on fancy stuff,” he said, “because people who are buying these and using them are not looking for gold-plated taps.” The idea, he said, is to build a vehicle with “amazing capabilities that you only use when you need to.”

Those capabilities include hauling 35,000 pounds up a 45-degree hill — and back down again — fording four feet of water and racking up 2,000 miles without refueling (at 60 mph, expect 8 miles per gallon). The Unicat also comes with doubles of all its major parts and the tools needed for any spot fixes in the wild.

And then there’s the desalinization unit, freezer, solar-power panels and air-suspension seats. The floors are teak, Ritter said, because it is a low-maintenance, self-oiling wood that can withstand the extreme changes in temperature and humidity demanded of it.

Cruising in a land yacht

With a few hundred of these no-frills land yachts in use around the world — from the $600,000 top-of-the-line Unicat to the smaller, $200,000 EarthRoamer, plus home-built models — extreme RVing has become the next big camping thing a for adventure seekers here and abroad.

Meyers, having already done the Sahara (he shipped his Unicat overseas), is taking off this summer for a trip that will eventually take him and his wife all the way to the tip of South America.

He’s become quite adept at handling his Unicat, a very necessary skill.

As EarthRoamer spokesman Matt Nakari points out, with the power in these vehicles, “If you back into something, it’ll be mashed into little pieces before you know you did it.”