Storm Highway by Dan Robinson
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Storm Highway by Dan RobinsonClick for an important message
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                   Monday, March 9, 2009 - 5:24AM

Event vehicle reconfiguration, continued

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I finished the dashcam mount yesterday, stumbling on a much simpler design than I had originally planned (photos here and here). It's been running fine during its first few test drives (video can be rotated easily in software, so the upside-down position is a non-issue). Still no progress on the Jotto desk problem - that may be a project for Raleigh later next month. In addition to that, there are a couple more items on the list that will need some work time.

Camera shelter - A huge benefit of the Freestyle that I'm going to miss is the rear liftgate. When it was open, it made a very convenient and effective shelter for me and up to two tripods. In fact, most chases I used the liftgate as a shelter at least once - nearly all of my lightning photos from 2006-2008 were shot while set up underneath it. With the truck, there is no easy way to replicate this feature. On my old Ranger, I kept a large golf umbrella in the bed that could simply be inserted into one of the rear stake holes in the rail. That provided a small area for me and one camera/tripod to stand under, however it was flimsy and had to be held onto to remain steady. It's also inefficient, as a large chunk of the available shelter is over the truck bed where I can't use it. In most cases, I opted to find external shelter (like under an awning, bridge or canopy) rather than deal with the umbrella.

I've continued to brainstorm on a solution to this, and the best idea I can come up with so far is a tarp-covered shelter on an aluminum frame, using tent poles or similar mounted in the rail stake holes (rough concept sketch at right). The frame can collapse flat, and the tarp rolled up for storage. This would work fine, except for the fact that such a setup would take up a large amount of space in the bed when not in use (I don't want a lot of junk cluttering up the bed). It would also not be an easy setup-takedown task - and if you know anything about storm chasing, you know every second counts. One minute too long trying to set up means lost photo opportunities.

For now, I have no choice but to go the former golf umbrella route just to get things functional in the short term. I may try to improve the stake hole fit by enlarging the umbrella handle with something - maybe a section of PVC pipe. My Fort Hill snow shelter rig is also an option, but it doesn't perform well as a stand-alone unit. It needs to be bungee-corded to something sturdy like a fencepost.

(I have to add a disclaimer about the shelter for lightning - unless I'm shooting upward lightning at the tower, it's not safe to stand outside during a storm. Thanks to my Canon XSi's locking cable release, I don't need to. I just set everything up, leave it running and get back inside to watch the show. Unless there's a lot of wind which might threaten to blow over the tripods, in which case I just have to find an exterior spot to set up.)

Safety lights: My amber rotator lightbar has probably seen its last days. It still works fine, but the dome is dirty, the magnet mounts rusty and it just looks old and decrepit. It may be cleanable to some extent, but I haven't used it for over a year and am hesitant about putting any effort into it. Its mag mounts also left rust rings on the paint of the Freestyle's roof, something I wasn't too happy about - and definitely not going to subject the new truck to. The benefit of the external lightbar was that it made my car look more like an obvious storm chasing vehicle (at least how most non-storm chasers envision one). That helped me get access to flooding and storm damage scenes, as well as preventing residents and police from being suspicious of me while out shooting storm photos at 4AM. But again, since the news video aspect of my photography is over, I no longer need access to damage scenes for b-roll footage. Not only that, I've just grown tired of the storm chaser 'look' and just want a normal-looking vehicle for a change, both inside and out.

I still feel the need to have some type of supplimental safety lights, which leaves me with the strobe system. I like the strobes better than a lightbar, as they are invisible unless they are on! The bulbs (pictured at right) simply rest inside the (rear) tail light housings, with only a small notch that needs to be cut in the main back-up light sockets (to allow the wires to pass through). I've always ran clear strobes in the back, inside the clear (back-up light) section of the shell. However, this time I think I'm going to wrap the bulbs with amber gels, as studies have shown amber is more effective at alerting drivers to a road hazard. As I've said before, I rarely use the strobes - but contrary to what you'll hear on some observer forums/web sites, they are useful in certain storm-related situations that one will inadvertently find themselves in a few times a year.

The main issue with the strobes on the Ranger is that their wiring has to get from the cab to the bed somehow (for the on/off switch and the power hookup). Once in the bed, the wiring is no problem as it can be simply concealed under the rails or behind the sides of the bedliner. But in most trucks (including the Ranger), the cab and bed are completely separated, with no 'passageways' available for wires (without drilling one, that is). The cab itself has no easily accessable openings to the back, the only option really being the doors. In my old Ranger, I ran the strobe system cable outside at the rear corner of the passenger side door, down to the base of the body, then under the quarterpanel back to the bed. This meant that there was a couple inches or so of cable exposed on the outside between the base of the door frame and the underbody of the truck. I'm not content with doing that this time. So until I figure out a way to get the wiring 100% concealed between cab and bed, the strobe install will be on hold.

I have also considered a thin amber 'arrow stick' (a horizontal row of rectangular amber lights) mounted on the inside of the rear window. These are also proven to be an effective configuration in terms of visibility. However, as I mentioned before, I'm hesitant about cluttering up the interior (or exterior) of the vehicle this time. It would have to be an extremely thin and compact unit to not impinge on the 'openness' I want to keep on the inside - not to mention not blocking the window. In short, I want it to be so small and unobtrusive that, like the rear strobes, someone wouldn't know it was there unless it was running. Doing a quick search online for these things has not yielded a result that I think I'd be happy with. They are all pretty expensive (400 bucks and up) and not worth the money for the 2 or 3 times a year I'd use it.

Interior storage/organization: One of the few differences between my old and new Rangers is that this one doesn't have any of the convenient compartments and netting behind the seats (in the extended cab area). I really miss the netting, which was a pouch that ran the length of the back wall that all sorts of stuff could be tossed into. While I still plan to keep the cab as uncluttered as possible, life dictates that there be something back there to hold small items that will inevitably find themselves inside. For instance, I have a notepad and a stack of paperwork in there now that has no place to go but on the floor. I might just find a couple of small milk crate-like baskets that things can be tossed into, but I haven't yet decided on a solution there.

So that's all for now.

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