If you want to camp out in a vehicle, a van is a great choice. You can throw a mattress in the back and hunker down for a good night’s sleep. If you prefer being entirely too conspicuous, you could get an ex-NYPD surveillance van with a crazy hydraulic lift and camp at altitude, letting the breeze gently rock you to sleep. Sounds fun, right?
Camping YouTuber Mavrik Joos, aka Mav, sourced a Ford E-350 van that allegedly served with the New York Police Department. At least, that’s what the shadows of former stickers seem to suggest. This is no covert surveillance van. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. From a distance, it’s easy to spot the huge modified top on the rear of the vehicle. It’s an enclosure for the scissor lift platform installed in the back which carries a “sky capsule.”
[Ed note: I remember seeing these around New York during protests and big events. I was clearly not clever enough to see their best use case, which is a camper. – MH]
It’s basically a mobile surveillance tower that can be raised high up in the air to give law enforcement a better view of an area. To pack in that assembly, the van’s roof sits at 10 feet, 6 inches high when it’s all retracted. It means you have to be a little careful of low-hanging power lines and the like when driving around.
Joos took the 4×4 van on a trip to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. With just 5,200 miles on the clock, he reports that it runs like a dream. He then steps through the process of getting the van set up to deploy its aerial surveillance pod. The back of the van hosts a ton of batteries and hydraulics to run the scissor lift, which can loft the surveillance box a good 30 feet into the sky. Setting everything up is quite an involved procedure.
Once the various auxiliary power systems are switched on, it’s necessary to extend the stabilizers at each corner of the vehicle. This is crucial to stop wind forces toppling the van when the pod is extended. A switch in the cabin auto-levels the vehicle, with Joos double-checking the positioning with a bubble level. Once the van detects that it’s sitting appropriately level, the scissor lift can be extended into the air.
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There’s no way to enter or exit the pod while it’s up in the air. Thus, travelling solo, Joos has to enter the pod on the ground, using its internal joystick control to raise and lower the scissor lift as required. He notes the risk of getting stuck in the air if he gets things wrong. Regardless, at height, the van offers something too good to resist—an absolutely stunning view out over Lake George and the mountains that you simply can’t get on the ground.
According to Joos, the van reportedly cost on the order of $250,000 to fit out before it was eventually deemed surplus to requirements by the NYPD. It still retains its deployable video cameras and other surveillance equipment from its former life in law enforcement. The cameras are controllable in pan and tilt via an Xbox 360 controller.
The vans were built by Terra Hawk, LLC, and are equipped with sliding windows for taking in a nice breeze if you fancy it. Hilariously, there is also a tiny little scoop-style anemometer that hangs beneath the surveillance pod, which helps monitor wind levels for safety reasons. A wind meter inside the cabin allows the occupants to monitor the conditions and take action if necessary.
Joos spends the night in the van, and even cooks dinner up there. He prepares a meal of mushroom gnocci with instant potatoes, which looks a darn sight better than most camping meals we’ve ever had. It’s got very little to do with the van, of course, but it shows there’s plenty of room to move in the surveillance pod if you can prepare pasta from scratch, right? In any case, if you’re cooking with fire in such a pod, remember to keep the windows open for good ventilation. Joos also notes that by cooking at height, threats like bears or other wild animals are greatly reduced.
The cabin isn’t exactly thickly insulated, so you’d want a good sleeping bag to keep you cosy. With that said, there is a heater onboard, but it’s perhaps ill-advised to run that while you’re asleep.
Those that aren’t a fan of heights might be best advised not to camp in such a way. It would be unfortunate to wake up in the middle of the night as your 30-foot high surveillance pod was in the middle of tipping over, after all. If you check the weather, and set up appropriately, you’d probably be fine.
On balance, I’d probably sleep on the ground and just raise the platform for my morning coffee. Best not to tempt the fates, and all.