We Hammered Storyteller Overland’s Beast MODE 4×4 Supervan For 2,500 Miles And It Didn’t Even Blink

By: Bill Roberson
Published on Forbes.com Aug. 5, 2021

The smoke was getting closer. After more than 1,000 miles of driving the bug-out luxury escape vehicle that is the Storyteller Overland Beast MODE 4X4 camper van, we were suddenly confronted with a possible real-world crisis, and there was just a small hint of panic in the air along with the lung-burning scent of forest fire smoke.

The Lava Fire in Northern California had grown by 400 percent while we were sleeping, and now a giant plume of roiling brown smoke crowned by a fluff of heat-generated white clouds was reaching ever higher over the ridge of pine trees across the water from our placid Lake Siskiyou campsite, and word was Interstate 5 could be closed at any moment as the fire marched west towards the highway fairly unimpeded following a change in wind direction. We had to be home the next day, which meant transiting up I-5 to Portland. We weren’t supposed to leave until morning. The advice from locals who had seen this before? Leave now. Right now.

While our friends quickly broke down tents and camp gear, we essentially tossed a few things into the cavernous rear storage area of the Beast, hugged our goodbyes, and lit out for home. As we drove north on I-5 under an increasingly ominous sky, we passed waysides full of stopped semis, prepped firefighting equipment and active fire crews. Tanker planes buzzed overhead. In the distance, the flames licked above the treeline, and the smoke, still high in the air for the most part, brought a sinister early evening to the end of the hot summer day.

Thousands of acres were on fire, creating an orange glow around Mount Shasta as we hustled north, low on fuel but with enough range showing to make it to the next fill up. With memories still fresh of acrid, smoke-filled Portland from the massive Oregon wildfires that raged during the pandemic’s height during the summer of 2020, we drove along in silence, my son clicking off photos out the window as we went. A few hours after we passed through, the highway was closed.

It wasn’t exactly the trip we had planned in the Beast, but as the saying goes, it’s the unexpected things that make the memories – if you survive. We will remember this trip. Even after we pulled into the driveway of a friend of a friend, the fires well behind us, the pall of smoke it generated was encroaching ever closer to our overnight rest stop in southern Oregon. But for now: Safe and sound.

Our adventure really began in 2020 with a pre-Covid conversation with Lee Conn of Storyteller Overland about #vanlife and the rise in popularity of both luxe and off-road capable conversion vans that melded elements of the bug-out ethos with a bit more… refinement. Thus, the $200,000-ish Storyteller Overland MODE 4×4 Beast, the top of the Storyteller range. If you ever have to wait out some sort of apocalypse-level event (or just want to get to that very hard-to-reach fishing hole), this is the van for the job.

We met up with the Conn, CEO Jeffrey Hunter and more members of the Storyteller team in Hood River, Oregon, at a van and outdoors event in late June. Even though I described how I and my family were about to pile up thousands of miles and put the van to the test, they still handed over the keys. That’s confidence in your product.

The Beast MODE 4×4 van is built on a Mercedes-Benz “standard” size Sprinter diesel 4×4 chassis, with a 3.0L V6 turbo-diesel engine, 7-speed transmission, selectable four-wheel-drive (high and low) and a suite of safety features including lane keeping, smart cruise, blind spot monitors, back up camera, GPS and a generous 10.25 widescreen-style touchscreen running the MBUX UI that was easy to operate and provided loads of information.

Storyteller Overland then goes to work, fitting Fox coil-over shocks and Method Black Rhino Havasu Rims with meaty BFG 275/70/17 KO2 tires that result in about a 4-inch lift that’s capped by fender flares. The van is already tall to begin with, so an Agile Ride Improvement ride control system is also added, along with a Tenzing front brush guard. Then, eight KC Highlight Extreme LED driving lights are added to the front roofline while two more sit on a brush bar on the strengthened nose of the van. Smaller spot and flood LEDs illuminate the van’s perimeter, which is visible using the 360-degree camera system. When all the lights are switched on, I suspect you could probably spot the Beast from beyond Earth orbit.

A 21-gallon freshwater tank, a grey water tank, a very clever fold-out HALO shower, folding rear bed area, sink, fridge, L-track floor kit, fold-up bed and two rows of locking overhead storage cabinets flesh out the interior. A two-person wide GrooveLounge seat with seatbelts and table system that converts into another sleeping station are installed as well.

An Owl rear and top rack system and two Zamp solar panels that can generate 90 watts of power on a clear day are added to the roof. That power flows into a big M-Power/Volta 12kWh storage battery, which is hooked into a 3,200-watt power converter that lights up the 13.5K BTU rooftop A/C, a portable induction cooktop, microwave oven, on-demand hot water heater, sink aerator, air compressor system, eight A/C outlets (4 inside, 4 outside), six USB ports and numerous interior dimmable LED lights. A diesel-fed furnace system for cabin heat while parked and instant hot water heating system are also on board. There’s also a power folding awning with an LED strip for exterior illumination. A small but sonorous bluetooth speaker on an auto-charging mount for those hikes and beach trips compliments a surprisingly good-sounding internal stock Mercedes audio system.

Other Beast bits include magnetic privacy shades, side ladder, running boards, magnetic bug screens for the side and rear doors, a fold-down outside table, an exterior shower, swiveling front seats, a removable interior dinette table, and a small portable Dometic chemical potty. There are shore power and municipal water connections as well for longer stays. Did I forget anything? Probably.

Once loaded up with paddle boards, suitcases, a Brompton folding bike, a dozen pillows, blankets, tents, folding chairs and our road-trippin’ dog Cosmos, it was time to hit the highway. The first leg was a long one, a 400-plus mile stretch from Portland to Eureka, California. This was a good chance to get a basic feel for the Beast, and we poked about inside the van as we rolled 240-odd miles down Interstate 5 on cruise control to Grants Pass, where we transitioned to smaller – and much, much more curvy – roads through the coastal mountains to get to California’s Lost Coast and eventually, Eureka.

It made for a good introduction drive since I-5 is pretty straight out of Portland until you hit Cottage Grove 120 miles south and a series of mountain passes come into play. Initial observations: The Beast is a great highway cruiser in terms of comfort, with the tall but well-sorted suspension easily soaking up every pavement irregularity and undulation. However, the Beast is also an all-hands-on-deck/wheel driving experience; you don’t just thumb-steer it down the road on cruise control. The smart cruise does do a great job of pacing with traffic, even maintaining speed and distance from dead stops like we encountered near the Redwoods to going 70 on the interstate in a heavy mix of cars, RVs and semis. But even with the cruise control on, driving it requires both hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, just as you would need to do with any big RV (or any vehicle, really). And just so you know, we averaged 13mpg across the whole trip, and pumped nearly $800 worth of diesel fuel into the Beast.

Highway 199 bridges the distance between I-5 and the rightfully famous Highway 101, and it twists, dives, climbs and churns through the coastal mountain range. It was a challenging drive. Construction slowed us to a stop for over 15 minutes at several points, which made for a good chance to pop some food into the microwave and chat with curious drivers out stretching their legs. A small pack of weathered riders on BMW adventure bikes parked near us and we gave them quick peek-a-boo tours of the Beast while we waited for traffic to start moving again; they were suitably impressed (and maybe a bit jealous of our comforts). Once underway, we had to tip-toe through several washed-out sections of the steep grade that had been filled in with gravel and dirt to allow passage. That was no problem for the Beast of course.

After rolling through the cathedral of giant redwoods, we arrived in Eureka and our first camping spot. We got the bed assignments sorted and settled in, and while it would be nice to say everyone slept great, it quickly became clear that the Beast is perhaps a bit beyond capacity with three adult-sized sleepers and a 70-pound Australian Shepherd. The back end main bed in the Beast thankfully includes flareouts that add a good four inches of width to the bed, which barely had space enough for myself (I’m 6-1) and my son, who rings in at 5-9. My wife tried to make a go of it on the fold-down GrooveLounge seat, but just could not get completely comfortable. Cosmos soaked up most of the remaining floor space. There was much tossing and turning, bumping into each other and stepping on the dog to get to the door for late-night trips outside to go potty. We laughed a lot. Wearily.

As we saddled up for the next leg of our trip, fighting off sleep debt with caffeine, we wondered if we’d expected a bit too much of the interior accommodations of the Beast. We have an RV of our own, which comfortably sleeps 5 people and the dog. What had we gotten ourselves into? Nonetheless, we schemed how we might better fit while I piloted the Beast to Samoa Beach, a spit of sand outside Eureka that is home to an OHV sand park. Four-wheel drive mode engaged, we rolled the Beast along sandy two-track, up and down berms and through swales of deep sand, which threatened to swallow even the deep-treaded BF Goodrich tires.

Choosing wisely but perhaps less than courageously, I opted against plowing through a section of very deep sand to reach the beach and crashing surf since there was no one around to give us a tug out if we got stuck and the tide came marching in. But even still, the capabilities of the Beast to make headway under severe load and on questionable terrain were made clear. Owners should plan adventures to suit.

Fortunately, our next stop included a night in a hotel, and we piloted the Beast 345 miles down picturesque Highway 101 from Eureka to the Bay Area. We ticked through the cozy small towns along the 101, through Rio Dell, Piercy, Leggett and Willits to name just a few and finally across the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco, where relatives had just welcomed their first baby.

This was all at a much slower speed since the 101 is 55mph max in most places, and there’s a small burg to pass through at 30mph what seems like every five miles. But in time, we arrived in S.F and paid up our sleep debt on sprawling queen-sized hotel beds, and then spent the next day driving to Santa Cruz and then to the famous beaches of Capitola, enjoying some typically stellar California coastal weather while back in Portland, our home town was wilting under days of record-melting temperatures of 115 degrees as the region baked under a freakish “heat dome” of hot air that does not bode well for the future.

From Santa Cruz we then threaded north through psychotic Bay Area traffic and rejoined Interstate 5 until, about 350 miles later, we arrived at our camping spot at beautiful Lake Siskiyou in the foothills of Mt. Shasta in the Shasta Trinity National Forest. Which had just caught fire.

After our unplanned hasty departure from Lake Siskiyou, we regrouped at a friend’s home in Medford, Oregon, cleaned up, refueled and repacked the van. The previous days had been a great learning experience in van travel and we had now better adapted to the Beast, simplifying the packing routine, putting items in better spots for increased accessibility and slimming down the load as much as we could. Somewhat reset, we spread out in the van and our friends’ home for one night after fleeing the fire, and Cosmos and I stretched out on the now less-crowded rear bed and enjoyed a solid night of sleep.

Really, the Beast is probably optimal with two people and a fur baby (or two if small), and it’s flat-out spacious for one person and a fuzzy companion. If you have small children, I’d say the maximum occupancy is two kinders and two adults unless you’re really into co-sleeping, or can pack light enough to turn the garage area under the bed into two more kid sleeping spots. We all awoke refreshed and set out early for the return trip up I-5 to Portland and one day of rest at home. Outside of our Eureka beach excursions, we really hadn’t had a chance to really test the off-road prowess of the Beast, but that was about to change.

Repeat readers will know I like to head east from Portland whenever possible and leave civilization behind for the wide open spaces of Eastern Oregon, where livestock outnumber people about 100 to 1. There are vast, vast reaches of the Oregon High Desert that have never seen a human footprint, and we set out for a tiny dot called Christmas Valley, a no-stoplight town on the edge of the Great Basin, which stretches across Oregon, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah and parts of California. It’s big. It’s largely uninhabited. It’s an overlanding dream zone.

The few roads to Christmas Valley (and the town is not “Christmas” themed in ANY way, trust me) wind across the Oregon Cascade Mountain Range and into the high desert, where the elevation is about 4,000 feet on average. A shortcut to the tiny town includes a long, long stretch of unpaved roads, complete with potholes, steep grades and other suspension tests. Additionally, by the time we even planned to arrive at the gravel stretch, it was going to be dark, and moonless dark at that. The 10-beam KC Highlight Extreme light array on the Beast was about to get a workout.

We turned off the highway and onto the dirt road, which thankfully appeared to have been graded recently, but we still crept along at under 20mph for the first few miles. Some decent hills were involved and I dropped the Beast into 4WD mode via pushbutton and had no trouble on the gravel grades, and the Fox coilovers soaked up innumerable potholes, washboard sections and washouts with aplomb. Gaining confidence, I eventually got the Beast up to about 35mph on the flat sections with the ten KC Highlight LEDs essentially turning night into day for as far as I could see down the road. We also saw a lot of glowing eyes along the sagebrush shoulders as we went, but the supernova-level glare of the Beast’s light bars likely kept the temporarily blinded critters off the road. Really, that kind of light output on a pitch black night is something unique to observe and use. I need some of those KCs on my truck, ASAP.

After dozens of miles of gravel, two-track, hills and turns, the road linked back up to pavement leading into Christmas Valley. We finally rolled into our destination down yet another dusty road far outside of the tiny town under a clear, moonless sky literally swimming with stars, and clicked on the Beast’s perimeter lighting kit so I could set up a UCO FlatPack fire pit grill for some hotdogs and other delicious campfire food. I then set up a SeaToSummit Telos TR2 tent for myself so my partner could enjoy a peaceful and spacious sleep on the Beast’s back bed with Cosmos, while my son pitched a small tent a comfortable distance away.

Under that sky full of stars, visible through the fine mesh of the Telos tent, the high desert was silent, save for a few crickets, until the moon slowly crept over the eastern horizon well after midnight, and the howls went up from the coyotes living in the nearby Black Hills. Long, low answers rolled across the desert floor from other coyotes as a few shooting stars creased the heavens before I nodded off. I hadn’t slept so good in I don’t know how long.

Over the next couple of days we drove the Beast around the area, stopping to paddleboard at lakes, searching for petroglyphs (above) and generally bombing it around back roads to find locals-only secret swimming holes or overlooks along the tall basalt cliffs that define the area. We stopped at Fort Rock and Summer Lake, and some charming tiny towns like Paisley that make up the patchwork of civilization that runs at a much slower speed than modern life in Portland.

It was good to get out on the road after a hard year of injury recovery and Covid clampdowns. We drove the Beast places you would never take a regular RV and that was certainly part of the charm, and except for a hiccup in the driver’s aid tech package that eventually rectified itself once we got back onto pavement, we didn’t encounter a single problem with the Beast. When it was hot, the big built-in battery ran the rooftop A/C for hours on end, and when it ran down after nearly a full day of continuous use, the special high-output charging system attached to the diesel engine quietly powered the van and fed juice back into the battery.

It was never really cold on our trip so we didn’t fire up the built-in furnace for heat except to test that it worked (it did), but having hot water on demand was a definite luxury. Even the little Dometic chemical toilet was simple to use, clean and reliable, and having an on-board shower was definitely another big plus.

But all that seamless and welcome luxury does come at a price, one close to the cost of an actual stationary home in many places, but the Beast MODE van and Storyteller Overland models price tags are certainly in line with many other RVs that offer similar amenities. You do get what you pay for: This is top-line turn-key road kit you can just get in and enjoy since the experienced van conversion folks at Storyteller have already answered most every #vanlife question you can think of. That was certainly my experience, and I’m not a novice RV owner.

The big differences, of course, are that all these amazing big RV features are built into a reasonably sized van that you can park in the driveway, drive to work or the store and park in (most) regular parking spaces. Try that with a typical motorhome. And that’s where a lot of the value of the Beast resides: It’s a multi-faceted machine that is ready for adventures large and small, from quick overnighters with some mountain bikes to long stays at RV parks to creeping down a steep two-track to that special spot for a few days of luxurious solitude – or even staking out a spot in a snow-packed ski resort parking lot. We even stealth city camped in it for one night in San Francisco, because, hey, it can do that. Easily.

While the price is certainly currently beyond the means of this journalist, I can certainly see how spending nearly a quarter of a million dollars on a vehicle that isn’t a supercar can be justified. The Storyteller Overland Beast MODE 4X4 van is great at enabling experiences that make for lifetime memories by confidently taking you places unreachable by the majority of RVs on the market today. And yet, I ran it to the store to get some ice and peanut butter when our regular car was in use elsewhere. Those are some of the main reasons why you’ll have to get in the queue if you want your own Storyteller Overland van. Is it worth it? If I had the means, I would not hesitate.